Death Wish II (Michael Winner, 1982)
With an unusually lengthy eight years between them — especially considering the surprise box-office smash that was the original 1974 Death Wish (though from the perspective of foresight, with the original film’s effectively violent, reactionary position providing a catharsis for a middle American audience stirred into feelings of existential terror and helplessness by the shrill daily reports of rising urban crime rates, it’s kinda hard to believe it was a surprise and not considered a fait accompli) – the sequel brought back what were the main heavyweights behind the first film (namely, star Bronson as the successful architect by day, gun-toting vigilante by night Paul Kersey and half talented/half huckster director Winner, as well as familiar character actor Vincent Gardenia’s world-weary Lieutenant Ochoa) and followed pretty much the exact same template, with only the crime-infested urban location changing. In LA now, focusing on his career and new girlfriend (Bronson’s real-life looker wife – and god-awful actress – Jill Ireland), a radio host and outspoken opponent of the death penalty (naturally, she knows nothing of the actions of her seemingly mild-mannered, if finely physically sculpted, significant other) after being caught by NY police and quietly forced out of the Big Apple at the directive of the upper crust politicians who didn’t want to deal with a very messy and public vigilante trial at the end of the first, Kersey’s life is turned upside down, yet again, as now – instead of wife and daughter being brutally attacked and raped (as if that wasn’t bad enough) – it’s now maid and daughter (still catatonic from the first attack!), leading to the architect picking up the arms he had in storage to yet again get back to the night street (this time donning a blue tuque covering that admirably full head of hair Bronson flaunted to the day he died) and pumping lead into those no good thugs, like any good citizen would do if not hampered by those damn liberal laws that protect all the bad guys.
Man, what a difference eight years made. Where the original plays out as an effective 70’s-style urban-gritty slice of agit-prop, with a certain level of restraint (if one can say that about a film that pushed the envelope with the home invasion rape/attack sequence that remains disturbingly powerful even today), with the remake, Winner is catering to a whole new film-going generation that was no longer shocked by the previous decade’s ‘new permissiveness’ that films like Death Wish ushered in. To make their mark, more sensational-minded (and far lower brow) 80’s films required a remarkable (for a wide eyed, eager to watch young lover of exploitation films like myself) and shameless jettisoning past any boundaries of acceptable taste, pumping up every vile and despicable exhibition on camera to steroid-like levels… and if anyone was right for the job, it was happy ol’ sleaze-master Michael Winner (there’s certainly something to be said for his clever chutzpah against all the moral outrage of the time – when asked about the likelihood of Kersey’s daughter being raped twice, the director casually submitted ‘I don’t know, maybe the poor girl’s accident prone’).
While the gang-rape sequence of the maid is far more graphic (and staggeringly lengthy) than that of the original film’s attack, it’s also rendered far less effective. With the camera clumsily lingering on every gyration and over-the-top grotesque hoot and holler of each gang member (including Laurence Fishburne, in an early role) as we watch the naked female character (and likely the actress playing her) being horribly humiliated, it all plays out as some kind of mindless freak show exhibit, with little of the stunning authentic resonance (and understanding of film language to express experience) that Winner captured in the first film. In fact, much of the film comes off as weirdly inept and awkwardly staged, with a number of scenes having a sense from the character movement that we could imagine Winner just called ‘action!’ a second before they moved, which is especially strange in comparison with the well crafted Death Wish.
I can only guess Winner, for whatever reason, just didn’t care by this point in his career, or perhaps just with this film… and this is a malaise that can be seen on many creative levels beyond just the frequent directorial indifference – from Bronson himself, after having delivered perhaps his best performance in the first Death Wish, returning with this one to his far more usual stiff and inexpressive exterior, eliciting little to no emotional depth (perhaps indicative of him knowing which film was worthy of an effort and which was just a paycheque), to the fact that no one noticed (or bothered to clear up) the obvious script discrepancies on how many years have past since the events of the first film (Kersey tells a doctor that his daughter, left catatonic after the first rape from Death Wish has been like this for two years, while a group of LA cops remember the vigilante killings of New York that took place five years ago). While it’s nice to see Gardenia back again, even he goes a bit off-base, slightly overplaying his part… though perhaps that speaks to the thin character material finally catching up with him (does he really have to suffer from exactly the same cold symptoms as the last film?).
It’s interesting that, veering away from the first film, where Kersey never actually finds the original attackers who violated his home and family, revenge of the perps in the sequel is the sole goal of his this time (never mind that in a city as large as Los Angeles, the chances of him having found the group is slim to none – again, something the far more intelligent first film understood about the Big Apple implicitly). Typical to how blockheaded the film’s approach is, as Kersey (who, despite his advancing age, is suddenly, and improbably, imbued with all sorts of fighting skills) stalks and kills each one (with, other than I guess a semi-clever audience-pandering line of dialogue here and there, if you’re into that kind of thing, little creativity otherwise in the kill department) the film in each case cuts to a quick flashback shot of the guy about to die placing him at the rape scene, as if we aren’t completely aware of who the guy is.
To be fair, there is something – dare I say – charming in the deliberately anti-social behaviour of films like Death Wish II; films that revel in the sleaziness of the characters, only to have them inevitably slaughtered in right-wing audience-cheering kill fests. It’s having the cake and eating it to, in grungy, and often glorious, misbehaving style. Yes the narrative is thread-bare, hanging as it does, on the imposing figure of Bronson (with little performance to add to it) and a lot of freak show theatrics from the gang-bangers, but yet, at its best moments, with its over-stylized lighting, street scenes creating a sense of LA as a doorway into hell, wildly fun, moody – and often unsubtle — electronic Jimmy Page score, Death Wish II is certainly engaging enough. In its best moments, it plays like a crazed 80’s remake of the first film, far filthier and more perverse, as in the hands of, say, _ Maniac_’s Bill Lustig (for instance, the much quieter scene of the mute and catatonic daughter’s violation in the dirty warehouse where the gang has taken her is far more queasily and luridly effective than the maid’s, and her ensuing surprise suicide/violent death provides the film’s one genuinely shocking jolt).
Some fun genre-fave faces appear, like John Carpenter regular Charles Cypher (Sherriff Loomis himself from the original _ Halloween_) as a hospital intern who is a vigilante-supporter that gives some helpful aide to Kersey, once he realizes who he is. Oddly, distinctly-voiced Anthony Franciosa, he of Dario Argento’s brightly lit, hyper-violent 1982 classic giallo Tenebrae, also shows up, but in a brief, entirely unnecessary role as a police commissioner that the Ireland character interviews about capital punishment.
Is Death Wish II reprehensible in its right-wing sensibility and ugly gawking freak show presentation of rape? Sure. Yet it’s also not dressed up as anything other than what it is… lurid, sleazy entertainment, appealing to the lowest common denominator. While Hollywood sells sensationalism and sleaze and hides it under a veneer of respectability (or, even worst, nobility), films like Death Wish II say ‘why pretend?’. They’re the bad boy on the block, shooting a defiant middle finger at supposedly respectable society. And there’s something to say for that.