Monday, November 9, 2009
A Man Has To Have Some Vices
The Cannon Films logo isn’t anywhere on DEATH WISH II but the names of Golan and Globus as producers are prominently featured, which is almost the same thing. The logo probably wasn't in use yet by them but if it were there it would make perfect sense. Coming in 1982, the film pretty much marked the beginning of the run through that decade of Charles Bronson churning out what seemed like countless vehicles for the company. DEATH WISH II has him returning to his famous role of Paul Kersey but around this time all the characters began to be the same anyway, one time after the other of Bronson gunning down as much scum as he could find. Directed by Michael Winner, who also called the shots on the first film, DEATH WISH II does have a slightly similar feel but not as much immediacy, no real point of any kind beyond the gunplay. The first was iconic, this is just kind of a Charles Bronson vehicle. And not one of the better ones. Of course, once we hit 1980 it’s safe to say that no Charles Bronson vehicle can seriously be considered one of “the better ones”. And I say that as someone who sheds a small tear every time he sees a film that opens with the Cannon logo.
Several years after the events of DEATH WISH (either two, four or five depending on conflicting dialogue that we hear), Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is now living in Los Angeles, still working as an architect, taking care of his still semi-catatonic daughter (now played by Robin Sherwood) and dating beautiful news radio reporter Geri Nichols (Jill Ireland—who else is going to play his love interest?). Kersey is now living a life of peace, without any of the violence he experienced in the first DEATH WISH…but then we hit the five minute mark of the sequel and it all goes to hell. Kersey runs afoul of a multi-ethnic group of muggers (including one “Laurence Fishburne III” as well as Kevyn Major Howard, later in FULL METAL JACKET) and when he tries to fight back after they get his wallet they use his drivers license to fight back…invading his home in a genuinely shocking, extremely unpleasant sequence of events that results in both his housekeeper and poor daughter, who still can barely speak, both raped and ultimately killed. Kersey insists to the police that he never got a good look at the gang to make any identification but we know the truth and soon enough Kersey is pulling a gun out of hiding and preparing to track down the toughs on the mean skid row streets by himself and once the Los Angeles police is investigating the vigilante shootings they’re bringing in New York Police Detective Frank Ochoa (the returning Vincent Gardenia) as a consultant and it doesn’t take him long to figure out what’s going on.
The original DEATH WISH was set on the mean streets of New York and even if it was a piece of big ol’ hackwork there was a certain primal power to it that anyone could identify with. Certainly the image of what that city became by then was a part of it as well along with just the simple idea of the terrors of going for a walk in Central Park late at night. DEATH WISH II moves things to Los Angeles and it’s not like this city has ever been crime free but it’s just not the same thing and considering how it’s portrayed it doesn’t seem to matter where they set it anyway—it feels like they only shot the movie here because no one felt like going anywhere else. Unlike the first film in which the hoodlums were never seen again after the initial attack, this film features Kersey, who knows their faces, on the hunt for them (gee, kind of like THE BRAVE ONE) but there’s no real plotting to any of it. He just goes out into the streets (completely different parts of the city at times) and stumbles into them (not to mention helping out an innocent married couple being brutalized themselves). The first film had the gritty 70s New York atmosphere but this one just feels like a cop show of the time that got way out of hand with lots of violence and sleaze—even the actors are mostly blah L.A. types as opposed to the interesting 70s New York personalities in the first film. Unlike just seeing the characters walk out into the potentially deadly streets, it’s just not going to be the same thing seeing Paul Kersey get in his car and drive around looking for muggers. Or taking the bus or heading out of the way down to skid row for that matter, changing into different clothes (so he won’t stand out like a sore thumb in his jacket and tie) like he’s some very low-rent version of Batman or something. The location work isn’t all that special (the geography’s pretty bad as well) though we do see various points downtown and on Hollywood Boulevard, although none of it’s shot in a particularly interesting way. Worse, they don’t show enough movie theater marquees, always a bonus in these things, although we do get to see that EXCALIBUR is playing at the Chinese.
The film has the same slammed-together feel that the first film has but considerably sloppier as if Michael Winner held a contest to see which aspiring editor could bring a two-hour cut down to under 90 minutes. As a result we have plenty of scenes of people making a big deal about heading out to a nice dinner, as if it mattered, then we never get to see that scene. Other extraneous bits of dialogue occur throughout where actors say things as if they mattered (a radio station manager taking a minute of screen time to complain about ratings, for example) but they never do. Some of Kersey’s architectural work is dwelled on as if it contained some thematic significance (there was some dialogue along these lines in the first film as well) but I’m at a loss to guess what that could be. There’s very little reason to expect elegant plotting or substance from DEATH WISH II but it’s as if the film is daring people to point out how sloppy all this is, even featuring out of place comic bits like Gardenia arguing with a cab driver. It’s so fast moving that it’s never in any way boring but there’s nothing particularly exciting about any of it. As much as they’re built up, the bad guys who Kersey picks off throughout are so cartoonish (has Fishburne ever commented on his role?) that there’s no real satisfaction to let us identify with any of it so it’s all just a big whatever of a movie.
Unlike the first film and of course the source novel by Brian Garfield (who actually wrote his own sequel entitled DEATH SENTENCE which was finally filmed a few years ago) the script by David Engelbach makes no attempt to broach the seriousness of the subject in even a half-ass way. At least the first film raised these issues even if it discard them quickly—it’s like that one was set in a bad-movie version of the real world, but this can’t even try for that amount of credibility. It’s just Charles Bronson picking up his gun and heading out for the kill, with no further though given to what he’s doing other than what affects the lame plot.
There’s not much to say about the actors. Bronson is more Bronson rather than any attempt to recreate the character of Paul Kersey and not much dialogue ever emerges from his lips. Jill Ireland seems sweet as she always did even if she was never actually very good (her character is never placed in any sort of jeopardy which makes me wonder if it was a demand by Bronson to keep her from being in such unpleasant scenes). Vincent Gardenia’s character gets a cold as soon as he arrives in L.A. which at least feels like an attempt at some kind of business to play but he never possesses the same amount of credibility he had last time around. Really, none of the actors feel like they’re overexerting themselves. Anthony Franciosa gets great billing for some reason in a tiny role as the Police Commissioner who never has any bearing on the plot. Henny Youngman is seen on a TV for a few seconds and gets screen credit for it. The music is by Jimmy Page. Jimmy Page? Really? It’s at least energetic, probably the only element of the film that really is.
At least it ended soon enough and, like I said, I was never bored. It was certainly over fast enough. I had little reason to actually sit down and watch this thing and it only made matters worse to have the MGM DVD that arrived from Netflix turn out to be full frame. I highly doubt much was lost in the framing but really, doesn’t anyone have any pride when it comes to these things? The packaging even includes a 2 in the title instead of a II. Of course, all this is appropriate considering the job Michael Winner did with the movie anyway. It’s unpleasant and sloppily made but really, should it be any other way? Hey, I own a Cannon films t-shirt so that should say something about where I’m coming from. There was no joy to be found in finally sitting through DEATH WISH II both because of the nastiness onscreen and because of how lousy it was. But it had to be done. That’s all there was to it.