Shitty Movie Sundays: Death Wish II

Forget for a moment that Death Wish II is one of the defining films for The Cannon Group and its producing pair of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Forget that it was this film, along with Enter the Ninja, that would come to define a style of shamelessness that has brought endless amounts of joy to both the shitty movie fan and the wider action flick audience. Forget that a film like this scratches a primal itch that high culture would like to pretend doesn’t exist. Instead, revel in the fact that Jimmy Page did the music for this flick. That’s right. Jimmy Page. From Led Zeppelin.

When I saw his name in the opening credits, I was giddy. What sort of hard rock grandiosity would Page bring to this flick? Would Charles Bronson kick down doors and barge in on bad guys to the sounds of a screeching banshee guitar? Would there be an element of the supernatural or the sublime, or was that the province of Robert Plant only? Golan and Globus would not hire Jimmy Page just to fill the air with slightly less generic-sounding action flick crap, would they? Maybe not, but that’s what they got. Yet, still. Jimmy Page! That caught me by surprise.

Death Wish II was released in 1982, eight years after the original was released. But, in a bit of movieland timeline acrobatics, this sequel takes place only four years after the original.

Bronson returns as Paul Kersey, a steely-eyed architect (has that phrase ever been used before?) whose family was once devasted by a gang of rapist murderers in the first film. Kersey took his revenge on the criminal element of New York City, and has since relocated to Los Angeles.

Things are going well for Kersey in his new life. He’s got a nice house, a juicy contract to build a radio station a new headquarters, and an attractive girlfriend in radio personality Geri Nichols (Jill Ireland). There is one constant reminder of the tragedy the Death Wish IIKerseys suffered in New York. Kersey’s daughter, Carol (Robin Sherwood), survived, but the trauma left her in need of inpatient psychiatric care.

One fine day, Kersey brings his daughter home from the hospital for a visit, but his timing could not have been worse. A gang of Los Angeles toughs, whom the credits list as Nirvana (Thomas Duffy), Stomper (Kevyn Major Howard), Jiver (Stuart K. Robinson), Punkcut (E. Lamont Johnson), and Cutter (Laurence Fishburne), target Kersey for a home invasion.

This scene is nasty. Kersey’s housekeeper, Rosario (Silvana Gallardo), gets the worst of it, visually. The gang rip her clothes off and throw her around, and the only respite viewers get is that shots of actual rape were either too much for director Michael Winner, or had to be cut to satisfy the MPAA. Either way, this would have been the wrong flick for an Irreversible-like portrayal of rape. It’s tough to make rape part of escapist entertainment, so while this scene is necessary for the plot, the filmmakers didn’t seem to know what to do with it. It’s a nasty bit of filmmaking, as stated above, but it’s also very clumsy.

The gang also kidnap Carol, and we’re treated to one more quickie rape scene before she hurtles herself to death out of a window. Now Kersey has the motivation he needs to become a vigilante, just like in the first flick.

Kersey has experience with being a vigilante, now. So rather than just wander around city parks waiting to be mugged, he sets up shop in a flophouse on skid row.

The scene when Kersey first wanders into the slum is precious — a true moment of shitty filmmaking. It’s not as blatantly unsophisticated as Chuck Norris’s nightmare drive through crime-ridden Miami in Invasion U.S.A., but it is very special. Every storefront Kersey passes is either a church or a flophouse. By the third church I was laughing.

Kersey then disguises himself as just another down-on-his-luck resident of skid row, and sets about getting revenge on bad guys. City officials in New York recognize Kersey’s activities in Los Angeles, and dispatch Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia, reprising his role from the first film) to quietly dissuade Kersey from any further acts of vigilantism before the Los Angeles cops get wise to the fact the NYPD once let Kersey off the hook. This little side plot could have been cut from the film and it would have made no difference.

I take that back. It could have made a huge difference. This film packs a lot into its 88-minute running time. For example, after his daughter’s funeral, we see Kersey head off to a cabin to take stock. This scene of grieving lasted about thirty seconds. Sure, it’s kind of a waste of time to have a scene with Charles Bronson grieving, as I’m pretty sure he didn’t have tear ducts, but the plot demanded a bit more than what we get. And that’s common throughout the film. If there was a scene that could be rushed to get to the next scene, then Winner rushed through it. Jettisoning some stuff would have allowed Winner to stretch things out to a more reasonable pace.

This would be felt most dramatically in the film’s climax, which kind of came out of nowhere. Main characters start to get shot, and it was only then I realized this was denouement.

But that’s regular film criticism. What about the shitty stuff?

This is where the film shines. The criminals are clowns, the city is a crime-ridden nightmare, and Kersey would stand out like a sore thumb if he tried this shit in real life.

Golan and Globus loved to mine the diminished state of American cities of the time. Sure, crime back then was bad, and still had about a decade of getting worse before it got better, but American cities were hardly the hellscapes that populate films like this. From an entertainment standpoint, though, the closer this fictional Los Angeles is to Gotham City, the better. It just means we get more Paul Kersey running around and killing bad guys. That’s what this shitty movie fan wanted, and that’s what he got.

Very watchable. Very entertaining, even with the nasty bits. Death Wish II put down a marker for The Cannon Group. It shoots way up the Index into #13, in between Event Horizon and Kingdom of the Spiders. Check it out.

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