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 quasi-fascist advertisement for urban vigilantes, done up in a slick and exciting action movie,” adding, “We like it even while we’re turned off by the message,” the film possessed 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 his revolutionary Headhunters album, thought of the movie is anyone’s guess.
Bronson was 53 years old at the time, the role of Paul Kersey a new lease of commercial life for the former Great Escape star, 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, former soft porn peddlers Dennis Friedland and Chris Dewey’s The Cannon Group was facing financial ruin by 1979 thanks to a change in film production tax laws, a potential buy-out 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 bottom-rung scripts in the hope of turning them into commercial bread winners, tapping into the popular slasher and action genres as the home video boom swelled to mouthwatering proportions.
Cannon’s tenuously-linked ninja trilogy of Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: the Domination would fuel the whole ninja craze of the mid-1980s, bringing martial arts master Shô Kosugi to western shores. In doing so, Cannon tapped into a niche market that allowed them a foothold as they looked to further branch out. With the help of homegrown stars such as Michael Dudikoff and the late Steve James, Golan-Globus would fulfill the patriotic whims of a generation consumed by Cold War propaganda, serving up ludicrous action by the bucketload. They would even manage a couple of Academy Award nominations in their quest for Hollywood hegemony, delivering critically acclaimed action thrillers (Runaway Train), Indiana Jones knock-offs (Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold) and even movies about breakdancing (Breakin’) as part of an audacious catalogue of productions that saw them work with everyone from Tobe Hooper to Andrei Konchalovskiy.
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!
As well as creating their own stars, Cannon’s ultimate goal was to reach a more mainstream audience, something they briefly managed after bagging Sylvester Stallone for the hugely successful Cobra, another vigilante flick in the Death Wish mode. The foreign outsiders ultimately crumbled under their own sense of ambition, their attempts at sparking a franchise comparable to Star Wars with Masters of the Universe, a Dolph Lundgren led adaptation of the popular cartoon He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, falling flat due to a combination of misguided influences, mismanaged funds and a film that, though glossed with Hollywood sheen, was very much a B-movie masquerading as big-budget extravaganza. The Israeli duo even managed to sabotage the hugely popular Superman franchise with notorious debacle Superman IV: The Quest For Peace that very same year. As endearing as Golan-Globus were, they had serious issues when it came to restraint.
Of all the stars, past and present, who were tempted by Cannon’s unbridled sense of ambition, it was an aging Charles Bronson who first took the bait. 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 who Cannon craved, the pair managing 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, resulting in the kind of moral outrage that put Winner, Bronson and the fledgling Golan-Globus exactly where they wanted to be: firmly in the hot seat. The onscreen Kersey was so far detached from the literary 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 in a much filthier way.
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 brazenly 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 while puffing on a cigar with the smug satisfaction of a man who’d 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 set out 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 harsh 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 became an urban incarnation of Clint Eastwood’s ‘the man with no name’, a colossal antihero with a ‘louder than words’ attitude who would embody the US 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 yoke 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 for 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 as America’s ‘crack epidemic’ swept the nation, changing society’s perception of the black community irrevocably. 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.
Paul Kersey: [after getting caught killing Nirvana with a electro shock machine] He raped and killed my daughter.
Donald Kay: I read about it. I’ll give you three minutes until I ring the alarm.
There are 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, stands 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, protracted scenes of rape shot with an almost voyeuristic relish. A distinctly manipulative scene sees Kersey’s doomed daughter flee her captors 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. Polls suggest that around 85 percent of Americans were Christians during the 1980s, so why not throw in a mock-Crucifixion to inflame things further? It’s this kind of overblown sequence that only serves to embellish the movie’s dubious message.
Death Wish II is essentially a series of unconscionably graphic and mean-spirited scenes tenuously held together by saccharine, picture perfect depictions of middle-class America. Folk are either smilingly going about their day or being subjected to self-satisfied acts of violence and torture. Particularly jarring is a scene in which Silvana Gallardo’s jovially subservient Latino maid Rosario is pinned down and savagely gang-raped by a home-invading rabble. It’s pretty tame by today’s standards, at least in terms of what we see, but it’s the intention that stays with you, the icky stench of casual sadism lingering long thereafter. I struggle to imagine exactly how Winner was behaving while orchestrating the whole ordeal. Hopefully his hands were nowhere near his pants.
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, and a rather silly one at that. 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 cheapo 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, a story of vengeance so like-for-like it’s positively derisory. This time around, Kersey is out to avenge the death of his snow white daughter and similarly ill-fated housekeeper, the only real distinction from the first movie being that affairs are moved from the notoriously expensive to film in New York City to the relatively cost-effective streets of Los Angeles. Kersey has relocated after the murder of his wife and the rape of his daughter, Carol, the latter of whom just can’t seem to catch a break. I mean, what are the odds that the formerly catatonic Carol, having only just been released from a mental hospital, would be set upon almost immediately, somehow finding the strength to leap through a plate glass window before her ludicrous impaling. She’s even raped for a second time before her murder-come-suicide. It’s beyond any and all digestible level of contrivance.
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 flamboyant gang colours of counterculture are little more than 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. Is it any surprise that there are so many guns in America?
Paul Kersey: You believe in Jesus?
Stomper: Yes, I do.
Paul Kersey: Well, you’re gonna meet him.
Then you have Kersey himself, an unflinching vigilante with a cool monotone and irresistible plain clothes charisma, a man who isn’t merely above the law, but backed by it. Not only does our mass-murdering voice of reason go 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, one suspects, because the majority of viewers are having very little fun with what he’s serving up. Though as is generally the case when it comes to the human condition, a deplorable desire for the grossly immoral wins out. You daren’t look away for fear of missing something abhorrent.
There’s also a grim fascination to be had with a harbinger of death who seems to spell doom for anyone he comes into contact with. Whether you’re beyond redemption or morally pure, my advice is to stay as far away from Kersey as humanly possible. Death Wish II‘s vigilante is the personification of Winner’s commercial attitudes, a man without consequence who seems 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 in his spare time, 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 seems to be every woman on planet Earth.
Boy, have we come a long way!