Charles Bronson gets the Cannon treatment in Michael Winner’s contentious thriller
By 1982, controversial British director Michael Winner was in desperate need of a hit. Eight years prior he had immortalised western stalwart Charles Bronson by taking his John Wayne act to the streets of New York City in 1974’s Death Wish, a Dirty Harry derivative that played into the hands of Conservative politics during the civil rights fallout. Described by Roger Ebert as, “a quasifascist advertisement for urban vigilantes, done up in a slick and exciting action movie; we like it even while we’re turned off by the message,” the film had a certain pedigree, particularly after jazz impresario Herbie Hancock was hired to write and perform the movie’s score, though what he and Winner’s Puerto Rican girlfriend, who had suggested Hancock after hearing the revolutionary Headhunters album, thought of the movie is anyone’s guess.
Bronson was 53 years old at the time, and the role of Paul Kersey would give the former Great Escape star a new lease of commercial life, one that was very much grounded in death. Though the original instalment tackled the growing problem of street crime in America, it was denounced by critics due to a vigilante theme that relished in the very violence it was supposed to be condemning. Back in the early 1980s, movies were often made without a franchise in mind, and by 1981 there wasn’t a Death Wish sequel in sight, but a change in direction over at Cannon Films would soon put an end to that.
A low-key production company with a maximum outlay of $300,000 per movie, Cannon were facing financial ruin by 1979 thanks to a change in film production tax laws, and a buy-out was the only thing standing between them and bankruptcy. Seizing the opportunity to embrace the red-hot home video market, Israeli producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus would take the reins with a very different commercial formula in mind. Looking to cash-in on the exploitation market, Golan-Globus would buy the rights to second-rate screenplays and put them into production, tapping into the popular horror and action genres as the video boom continued to swell. Their tenuously-linked ninja trilogy of Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: the Domination would fuel the ninja craze of the mid-1980s, bringing martial arts master Shô Kosugi to western shores. But as well as creating their own stars, their ultimate goal was to reach a more mainstream audience, and Charles Bronson was their original go-to guy.
Golan-Globus had Death Wish in mind before their prospective Cannon buy-out, and after purchasing the rights to the series turned to veteran director Winner, their controversy-creates-cash mantra the perfect antidote for his flailing career. After a string of underwhelming efforts, including 1979‘s Firepower and a badly received remake of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, a new commercial modus was required if Winner was to become relevant again, and Cannon had just the ticket. He and Bronson had a history together that went beyond the original Death Wish, the two collaborating on a total of six movies, but it was the controversial Kersey Cannon craved, and they managed to bag Bronson and Winner at just the right time. What they did to the Kersey character was cheap and unconscionable. It was also utterly compelling, headline news that put Winner, Bronson and the fledgling Golan-Globus exactly where they wanted to be: firmly in the spotlight.
Jiver: We just thought we’d bring Mr. Kersey’s wallet back.
Punkut: Look at this. Isn’t this prreetty?
Stomper: Lady, you scream and disturb the neighbors, we’ll cut you into little pieces and eat you for dinner!
Death Wish II was so detached from its source material that Death Wish author, Brian Garfield, wrote his own sequel, claiming, “They’d made a hero out of [Kersey]. I thought I’d shown that he was a very sick man.” Later sequels Death Wish 3 and Death Wish 4: The Crackdown would lead the series to deliriously over-the-top territory, upping the body count along with the silliness, but for now Winner was intent on stirring the ethical pot, and stir it he did. Called out by feminists who were repulsed by Winner’s emphasis on graphic rape and violence against women, the British director had his own take on a movie that Golan-Globus insisted was a fair reflection of modern American society. “Rape never dates,” Winner announced to a suitably horrified public, grinning from ear-to-ear with every dubious counterargument and puffing on a cigar with the satisfaction of a man who had achieved his goal and then some. It was a staggering example of male chauvinism designed specifically for prime time television, and it worked a treat. Soon everybody was talking about Kersey’s latest outing. Golan-Globus were there to make noise and Winner was the Cheshire cat they craved. Mission accomplished.
Decades later and the movie still proves shocking for the most part — not just for its depictions of sexual violence but due to its political resonance and eye-for-an-eye Republican values. Far from portraying a ‘very sick man’, Bronson’s Paul Kersey was a modern incarnation of Clint Eastwood’s ‘the man with no name’, a colossal antihero with a ‘louder than words’ attitude that would embody the U.S. government’s infamous ‘war on drugs’. From the very opening shots of a thriving industrial skyline, this is a fight for the American Dream, one which advocates and even glamorises the slaughter of a gang of youths running roughshod over the system.
This kind of paper-thin retribution was devastating to inner-city communities suffering under the ilk of enforced poverty. Here, crime is not depicted as a consequence of that poverty, but as a natural disposition of the nation’s growing ethnic communities. I’m sure there were people out there capable of physical and emotional torture with such inhuman glibness, but the characters in Death Wish II seem representative of certain cultures as a whole, a consequence of comic book characterisation and unrealistic solutions to complex social problems. This is the way Ronald Reagan would have dealt with crooks during his days as an onscreen cowboy. The fact that he became a proponent for such values during two terms as United States president is less an irony, more a natural, concerted effort.
Back in reality, the evidence of such attitudes and motivations was plain as day. While the US media steered focus from the distinctly affluent issue of powder cocaine, laws on possession of the relatively cheap crack cocaine were tightened, a move that resulted in record numbers of ethnic minorities serving jail time. It didn’t matter that banks laundered drug money, that kingpins were unseen and suited, that drugs were as much a routine for elites and sections of the middle classes as they were for low-income addicts. It was the jobless miscreants you needed to look out for, those uneducated kids from broken homes who had never been tossed a bone in their lives and had little else to do but loiter. Death Wish may have been a fictional vehicle designed to stir controversy and sell tickets, but its ill-conceived depictions would fuel the fire of a white middle-class America now willingly at the mercy of a very real sense of political outrage.
Sure, there were white criminals in the movie too, most notably Kevyn Major Howard’s Stomper, and though racism surely wasn’t on the filmmaker’s agenda, these things have a life of their own when viewed through a sociopolitical lens. One scene, in particular, seems to stand out in this regard, depicting a ghetto blaster not as an item of cultural expression, but as an antisocial scourge that needs eradicating, a fact punctuated when Lawrence Fishburne’s Cutter is shot in the face after attempting to shield himself with the offending device. Smooth! Though I’m sure the likes of Sony and Nike, corporate brands who push urban consumerism and in doing so directly influence crime statistics, would have something to say about that in the 21st century.
Death Wish II is remorselessly insensitive, breathless in its amplifications of a society gone rotten. In no time at all a routine street robbery evolves into unrepentant and non-discriminatory violence, while protracted scenes of rape are shot with an almost voyeuristic relish. A distinctly manipulative scene sees Kersey’s daughter flee a similar situation by flinging herself through a plate glass window. As a consequence she becomes impaled on a spike fence, an image that seems to carry certain religious connotations. It is this kind of overblown sequence that only serves to embellish the movie’s dubious message.
Paul Kersey: You believe in Jesus?
Stomper: Yes, I do.
Paul Kersey: Well, you’re gonna meet him.
Of course, hindsight is a powerful healer, and once stripped of its quick-fix politics and moral hysteria, Death Wish II becomes an irresistible time capsule for the heady exploitation boom of yesteryear. In an era of sophisticated, media-driven propaganda, the movie becomes so transparent that it almost seems kitsch. As does Bronson’s merciless antihero, a man seemingly bereft of human emotion as the bodies of his nearest and dearest pile up. Watching Death Wish II, it sometimes feels like one of those carnival shooting galleries, the kind where good and bad figures pop-up and you have to decide which to gun down. Your aim might be off (or more likely your rifle’s sight tampered with) but the sketches are so obviously delineated that spotting the crooks is a doddle. Thanks to the movie’s similarly cheap characterisation, Kersey has that ability, and if an innocent was to get caught in the crossfire it’s difficult to imagine him shedding a tear. After all, real men don’t cry. Real men kill unflinchingly.
The plot is similarly throwaway. Death Wish II is all exposition, its inane sub-narratives a mere sideshow for a series of cheap one-liners and Republican beat-downs. When things are going well, it’s a picture book of a movie, one of serene landscapes and melodramatic romance, a tone that makes its otherwise explicit nature seem all the more startling. So stark are the film’s black-and-white delineations that its victims are all angelic images of perfection, while those daubed in the gang colours of alternative culture are cardboard crooks who deserve nothing but death. Not only are they out to rape and pillage the poor, upstanding citizens of America, they tease their victims with a psychopathic relish worthy of Hannibal Lecter at his most devilishly opulent. No wonder there are so many guns in America!
Then you have Kersey himself, an unflinching vigilante with a cool monotone and irresistible plain clothes charisma, a man who is not merely above the law, but backed by it. Not only is our mass-murdering voice of reason unpunished for his blatant misdeeds, cops and government officials are reluctant to persecute him, everyday citizens willing to turn a blind eye based on moral grounds. Yes, society advocates Kersey’s Wild West antics, because killing inner-city kids with handguns is the American way. It’s written in the constitution, people!
Still, you’ve got to love the sheer audacity of it all. Winner is a mostly lousy filmmaker of chapjack productions, but you can only admire the force of his conviction. He seems to be having more fun than a juvenile delinquent armed with a magnifying glass and a bucket of soldiers; precisely, you imagine, because the majority of audiences are having very little fun with what he is serving up. Death Wish II‘s Kersey is the manifestation of Winner’s commercial attitudes, a man without consequence who is impervious to the pesky emotional turmoil that governs reality. Not only does he take out the trash with his quick-draw mentality and stone cold facade, he somehow manages to run a full-time business, concealing his antics from the kind of naïve lady friend who desperately needs a man to shoulder the burdens of life, which in Winner’s mind is every woman on planet Earth. Boy, have we come a long way!