Fucked-Up Films #9: Death Wish II (1982)

What are these sick bastards doing? Sending civilization to hell in a handcart. Luckily, one man has the answer. And it isn’t rehabilitation or any other namby-pamby shit.

How skuzzy are the men? Our obnoxious five-strong street gang is happy to sit around at fairgrounds scoping potential victims. Apart from having names like Stomper and Cutter, you know they’re horrible because they have a ghetto blaster, a requisite piece of intimidating equipment for urban malcontents in the 1980s. Bronson later murders the anti-social machine (along with the cretinous perp carrying it) using a single shot, a classic example of killing two birds with one stone.

Fashion-wise, this lot favors futuristic pink sunglasses, a bandana, a leather waistcoat, a mesh T-shirt, a fingerless glove, a skinny tie, some earrings, a balding blonde mullet, three hats, and a pair of knee-length brown boots with a solitary spur. In other words, not good. They also lose intimidation points by dancing really badly in public, but they sure have an attitude. Loads of attitude. “Look at him,” one says in an unmistakably catty way as Paul Kersey (Bronson) attracts their mean-spirited attention by walking past to provocatively buy an ice-cream. Perhaps they object to his sensible wardrobe. Who knows? You get the feeling it doesn’t take much to upset this bunch and have them arrive on your doorstep.

Is the villain any good? Er, who is the baddie in this right-wing flick? I think I’m supposed to name the murderous home invaders rather than Kersey, but I guess that depends on whether you’re pro or anti-vigilantism. Whatever the case, Kersey’s at the very least an antagonist so I’ll plump for him.

By this point in his career, I don’t think Bronson was putting in much effort, perhaps taking his onscreen charisma for granted. Still, he does what’s required. That basically means giving a deliberately sketchy description of his assailants to the ineffective cops, being stoic when confronted with the sight of his (yet again) raped daughter on a slab, and then matter-of-factly proceeding to the business of mass murder. It really is amazing how little time he spends grieving. I don’t think he even mentions his daughter’s name again, the poor poppet. She must hold some sort of record for having the worst possible time in consecutive flicks.

Kersey hunts her killers by wandering the grimy streets of downtown LA aided by a convenient photographic memory. Inquisitive hookers are ignored (“What’s wrong?” one sweetheart says. “Haven’t you got one?”) Sometimes he ends up in an abandoned, rat-filled hotel chatting about Jesus while at others he crosses patches of waste-ground skirting around half-loopy characters dancing or muttering to themselves. Most of the time he stares at young people, obviously none too impressed with their dyed hair, leather jackets and penchant for breaking into cars. One glassy-eyed automaton is even seen wearing a pair of denim dungarees without a shirt. Christ, you can almost hear Kersey thinking, what’s wrong with a nice jacket and tie and being a productive member of society?

Kersey’s demeanor doesn’t change pre or post murder. He sports the same expression whether proposing to his dull girlfriend or pumping scumbags full of lead. However, he does manage a sort of Clarke Kent transformation, utilizing a shitty hotel rather than a phone booth. He walks into it a smartly dressed architect and wanders out sans tie with a beanie and gloves as Mr. Kimble. Hey presto, he’s a killing machine. With the same expression. Not bad for a reputed $1.5million paycheck, huh?

It has to be said Death Wish II lacks memorable dialogue. “Goodbye” is a pretty poor one-liner in anyone’s book, but that’s all Kersey can manage after wiping out one hoodlum. His best scene arrives when he takes on and somehow kills four men wielding an arsenal of high-powered weaponry, despite only having a paltry handgun and a tree trunk to hide behind. He’s such a deadly shot he even gets a fleeing perp to drive off a cliff (that materializes out of nowhere) and die in a fireball.

Christ, the NRA was right. All it takes is one good man with a gun”

How do the lovely ladies fare? Not well, given the emphasis on sexual violence. The details of the gang rape, even in the heavily cut version you’re likely to see, are persuasive. “Hey, man, look at that,” one rapist says in a sing-song voice after breaking into Kersey’s home, overpowering the convincingly terrified Mexican maid and exposing her panties. “Isn’t that pretty?” Then we get licked buttocks, full frontal nudity, a belt whipping, and lots of giggling, tongue-waggling and whooping.

Later there’s the violation of Kersey’s abducted daughter, a traumatized young woman still recovering from her first rape in New York City. “I’m gonna fuck you, lady,” one of the gang tells her. Winner again captures maximum unpleasantness, particularly in the close-ups of the watching men’s faces. Her attempt to flee, culminating in the most savage impalement on the railings of an iron fence, is startlingly well done.

Elsewhere, a busty woman in an underground car park is violently assaulted as Winner delights in yet more nudity. Even by his standards he’s pulling out all the stops. Hang on, there’s still a bit more to go as a meditating, headphones-wearing woman is briefly seen topless for no other reason than she’s got great jugs while a passenger waiting in line for a bus has her skirt pulled up.

On the plus side, Kersey’s journalist girlfriend Geri (Bronson’s real-life wife Ireland) is a successful career woman. Unfortunately, Ireland’s such a non-actress she manages to kill every scene she’s in, along with whatever liberal waffle she’s trying to peddle about the evils of capital punishment. It was probably only Bronson’s clout that managed to keep Winner from having her clothes ripped off, too.

Would the violence make a vicar faint? Kersey’s executions are for the most part run of the mill gunplay. It’s the two explicit, frontloaded rapes that are going to make any man of God hot under his dog collar.

How fucked-up is this film? We’re immediately told by a newsreader on the radio of an ‘alarming rise in violence’ that has seen LA homicides skyrocket by seventy-nine percent in the last five years. It’s not a case of statistics, statistics and damned statistics, though. Straightaway we’re shown hard evidence of how things have gone to shit when Kersey can’t even buy an ice-cream in broad daylight without being hassled and having his wallet stolen.

This movie is nakedly pro-vigilante, a rabble-rousing ninety minutes that clearly wants us to cheer the vengeful Kersey on. We are repeatedly banged over the head that cops are useless while treatment for hardcore criminals is a waste of time. One husband whose semi-violated wife has just been saved from a much worse fate by the gun-toting Kersey tells the police: “Where the hell were you guys? Giving out parking tickets?” Later, he labels Kersey a ‘very good citizen’. A dying cop explicitly gives his approval of Kersey’s blunt methods by saying: “Get the motherfucker for me.” In New York the Police Commissioner admits Kersey’s original crime spree (in which he killed nine people) didn’t lead to a prosecution because ‘street crime was down fifty percent’. Elsewhere a hospital orderly is so contemptuous of the therapy where he works that he aids Kersey’s getaway after an obviously still dangerous patient has just been zapped.

I could go on, but you get the picture. And you know what? I’m fine with a movie giving both thumbs up to outlaw justice. Just like I’m fine with any flick in which rape is eroticized, serial killers are super-intelligent and glamorous, heroin is shown to be a cool drug, and war is depicted as a noble, justifiable pursuit. Why am I fine with all that? Because I form my opinions based on my experience and what actually goes on in the world rather than from the cinema. Hence, I know rape is bad, people like Peter Sutcliffe fell as far as any human could, skag is a soul-sucking plague on society, and war is ghastly. In other words, I don’t care how the cinema depicts stuff or whatever message it tries to shove down my throat. Movies are just made-up shit. All I require is they entertain, engage or at the very least distract me from the emotional wasteland that’s my life. And so Kersey’s an unrepentant vigilante. This is great in the movies because, you know, lots of killings, but probably not so great in real life. In fact, I strongly suspect vigilantism is a recipe for disaster, but I don’t go bagging a flick just because it presents the opposite viewpoint to my own.

Nevertheless, Death Wish II is a long way from quality fare. It’s a simplistic, button-pushing exercise that revels in the worst of human behavior. Then again, it moves so fast that it’s impossible to be bored, especially during its rancid (but action-packed) opening twenty minutes. It remains a divisive watch, loved by fans of retro-sleaze and loathed by those who prefer a slightly more nuanced and restrained take on things. Whatever the case, it was a big hit, ensuring Kersey would be unleashed to hatefully tangle with lowlife punks yet again.


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