Throwback Thursday: “Death Wish II” (1982)

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Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) in Death Wish II. Image source: shoutfactory.com

Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is the ultimate vigilante paradox: he’s at once living the American Nightmare (loved ones killed by sadistic scumbags) and the American Dream (killing sadistic scumbags while always remaining above suspicion), and he did so for five films of wildly unpredictable quality.

In Death Wish II, David Engelbach’s script throws meaningless asides on the death penalty, criminals getting off on “insanity” pleas, and how the police must be left to address violent crime, like breadcrumbs to indifferent pigeons. It’s all obligatory, designed to distract from the fact that this sequel is mainstream vengeance porn.

The question, then: is that a bad thing?

I enjoy Bronson as an actor, with his distinctive weathered features and stone-faced stoicism. His expressions speak volumes when words do not. It’s interesting to juxtapose his most popular role against that great Twilight Zone episode, “The Two,” in which he plays a soldier attempting to make peace with a reluctant enemy (Elizabeth Montgomery) in postwar America.

Death Wish II breezes through conflicts with a can’t-be-bothered efficiency which is still…efficient. At 90 minutes, those in the mood to wallow through some glossy exploitation that gives way to eventual catharsis could do worse. This is something I would have loved during my teen years, when the violence-gorged works of Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone epitomized the appeal of ids run amok.

The Shout! Factory Blu-ray of Death Wish II restores previously cut scenes of sexual violence that were excised to secure an R rating. Seeing them restored is still repulsive and shocking, 34 years later. They also indict late director Michael Winner (The Sentinel) as getting off on his compositions as much as he hopes the viewer is. Given the opportunity to ogle exposed parts of the female anatomy, he will. The commitment of actresses Silvana Gallardo and Robin Sherwood during these intense scenes would’ve been better commemorated if the script didn’t use them as pointless fodder to incite Kersey’s rampage, and if the scumbags perpetrating said acts weren’t presented as one-dimensional cartoon characters.

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The Generic Scumbag Gang in Death Wish II. Image source: cinemaretro.com

It bears noting that the original Death Wish was bankrolled by Paramount, presented its violence in a more tactful manner, and even provided some insight into Kersey’s character (he was a conscientious objector – irony!). Instead of a heart-to-heart with a trigger-happy rancher at a shooting range, he chops wood before going back into action against the scumbags who raped and killed his housekeeper (Gallardo) and traumatized daughter, Carol (Sherwood). Similarly, the Jekyll and Hyde aspect of Kersey’s life is purely surface-level – he rents a room in a Skid Row flophouse and prowls the streets at night, while still somehow managing to balance his career and a romantic relationship with liberal radio commentator Geri Nichols (Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real-life wife).

The 1974 film is pure art-house compared to this sequel, which cherry-picks familiar beats and renders them in a more derivative, crass fashion.

But again, is that a bad thing?

To explain the base-level, neanderthal cathartic thrill I get out of Death Wish II is perhaps best rationalized through comparison: this sequel hit at the onset of the slasher craze, and follows a template not dissimilar from the escapades of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. Both of these horror icons began their journeys (in Jason’s case, not until the second film) in comparatively humble places, with ambitions that transcended mere shock value. Despite the gory excesses of the original Friday the 13th, it still generated enough suspense to earn its scare-value merit badge. Upon obtaining box-office success, these icons became embroiled in a symbiotic push-pull of who could outdo the other in terms of graphic kills; Halloween II in particular showed a dramatic divergence from its predecessor in terms of violence.

Despite its precarious thesis (“vigilantism is okay…sometimes…maybe“), Death Wish had ambitions of cultural legitimacy and social commentary. But Winner is no Scorsese, and Death Wish was no Taxi Driver. When stripped of those aspirations, however, we are faced with what these films – and the Michaels and Jasons – truly are: low-grade escapism that packs a crudely cathartic thrill.

What can I say? Sometimes, lowered expectations win out over loftier ideals.

(SPOILERS below.)

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Kersey and Carol (Robin Sherwood). Image source: mubi.com

This sequel is full of ridiculous moments: the way Kersey doesn’t need to put in any sort of detective work in tracking the scumbags – as he wanders around Skid Row, they randomly cross his path; how a “retirement year” Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia, reprising his role from the ’74 film) helps maintain series continuity, only to be offed in the most unceremonious manner possible; how the LA Police Commissioner (Tony Franciosa) draws a pretty far-fetched parallel to the LA vigilante and Kersey’s spree in New York; how Geri shrugs off Ochoa’s sudden appearance in her apartment, and how Kersey subsequently talks her in a circle to avoid explaining his secret double life (he brings it back to his personal experience and seals the deal with a kiss – damn!); a driver’s terrible reaction shot when Ochoa jumps in front of her car; how a guard at a mental institution gives Kersey a pass (and passcode) before sounding the alarm; Laurence Fishburne’s death by boombox; and how the film exists in an alternate universe where only 2 years have passed since the original, yet everyone looks much older.

It’s all so outrageous. But entertaining, too. I make no apologies for this, but can apologize for not having a greater objective rationale for my praise. Death Wish II, like many sequels, is just something that is; perhaps an unnecessary evil, but a cathartic one all the same.

Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 6 out of 10