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.


Anonymous said...

Death Wish 2 is special for me, because the guy who plays Nirvana (Thomas F. Duffy) is a distant cousin of mine. It is not best guilty pleasure of the Death Wish series (Death Wish 3 gets that honor) but it works on a similar level.

I can always watch it and consider the time well spent.

le0pard13 said...

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”.

I was going to take issue with this, then I looked it up in IMDB, and you're right. But, I did enjoy DEATH HUNT (with two the great He-Men, Bronson and Lee Marvin, sharing a movie) ;-).

Great review, as always, Mr. Peel.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I considered that statement very carefully--I wouldn't just hastily trash Charles Bronson movies! I saw DEATH HUNT once a number of years ago and thought it was pretty flat, but maybe I should take another look at some point. From the look of things, it seems like it was his last big-studio entry. And I should see TELEFON again too, while I'm at it.

But I still need to finally see DEATH WISH 3 which as confirmed here seems to be everyone's, um, "favorite". I promise, I'll get to that soon enough!

Arbogast said...

I have an inexplicable fondness for Death Wish, Too and Vincent Gardenia's, erm, exit never fails to stun me.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I found myself watching Gardenia's last scene a few times (SPOILERS HERE!!!!):

He spits out "Get the motherfucker," to Bronson, an expected laugh line for an action movie. Then Gardenia begins the Lord's Prayer which I was actually taken aback by, since it's something that you don't generally see in these movies. But before I even had time to process that, he nods his head down and dies in a way that's so unconvincing you'd think he was acting in a children's play. Three specific responses, all within about ten seconds of each other. That sums up DEATH WISH II right there.

christian said...

I've always found this a terrible depressing film. The rape scenes are so horrific and exploitive (edited I believe on the dvd release). And the premise is ridiculous. It's too bad Quentin wasn't around then because he woulda found a good role for Bronson, who basically phoned in much of his 80's work. I always found the Ireland/Bronson pairings to be endearing tho.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Those scenes are pretty terrible but I guess after the home invasion in the first film I didn't find the repellent tone all that surprising.

I think the only person who was able to get Bronson to do something different in his later years was Sean Penn with THE INDIAN RUNNER which I've actually never seen. In his autobiography Joe Eszterhas writes about how Bronson expressed interest in the grandfather role in his personal script TELLING LIES IN AMERICA. They wanted (and got) Maximilian Schell for the part but Eszterhas writes that he couldn't think of too many other parts that both men might have been up for.

That Bronson and Ireland made so many films together is kind of sweet. The only person I've ever known who ever worked with Bronson didn't have much to offer about him, saying he pretty much kept to himself--he probably just wanted to go home to Jill. I guess the two of them really did want to be together as much as possible.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

For what it's worth, the German DVD of this is uncut, is visually much sharper and is widescreen. The sound is also better so Jimmy Page's score is much more effective. None of this improves the film much but I thought I would mention it.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I had seen mentions of different cuts out there but I couldn't tell if the MGM DVD represented the version that played theaters here in the States. I don't know if I'll ever need to see the longer version but at least it's out there just in case. If the German DVD helps the music then that is a good thing--some of it is pretty cool.

Ned Merrill said...

This one has played for free in HD on Comcast On Demand fairly recently, which is where I watched it. I've only seen this one and the original and I'd have to say that the rape scenes felt more needlessly brutal and repellent in the sequel. Along with that, the actors playing the villains were more vile and over-the-top than I thought was necessary.

Howard, who was very effective in FULL METAL JACKET and has gone on to a successful career as a head shot photographer, is saddled with a particularly heinous mullet that I guess the producers considered "punk." Another one of the thugs was Mickey's assistant, Johnny, in ROCKY II. He's the guy who Bronson chases down in the warehouse.

Perhaps this film belongs in an interesting category, for me at least, of films that feature villainous punks. I think the best example is, of course, CLASS OF 1984. As nihilistic as that film's crew was, they didn't seem as nasty as DEATH WISH II's. This might have something to do with the fact that the rapes and killings in that film aren't quite as explicit as those in the Winner film. If CLASS OF 1984 could ever be considered nuanced or restrained, it would be when comparing it to something like DEATH WISH II, which is infinitely uglier in comparison.