Charles Bronson gets the Cannon treatment in Michael Winner’s contentious thriller
Eight years prior he had immortalised western stalwart Charles Bronson by taking his John Wayne act to the streets of New York City. Although the original Death Wish 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 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.
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!
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. 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.”
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 on 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.
Decades later, and the movie still proves shocking for the most part – not just in its depictions of sexual violence, but also 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.
Back in reality, the US media steered focus from the distinctly affluent issue of powder cocaine, while laws on the possession of the relatively cheap crack cocaine were tightened, a move that resulted in record numbers of ethnic minorities serving jail time. 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 although 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.
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.
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.
Paul Kersey: You believe in Jesus?
Stomper: Yes, I do.
Paul Kersey: Well, you’re gonna meet him.
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.
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-up 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, while everyday citizens are 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. Kersey is a man without consequence, a hero impervious to the pesky emotional turmoil that governs reality. Not only does he take out the trash with his quick-draw mentality and unflinching facade, he somehow manages to run a full-time business, concealing his antics from the kind of naïve lady friend who needs a man to shoulder the burdens of life.
Boy, have we come a long way!