The only possible way to enjoy the Death Wish films is to imagine they take place in an alternate universe where the paranoid fever dreams of the elderly have all come true. They’re the relentlessly cynical antidote to Cannon’s Breakin’ films, which paint Los Angeles slums with the sunniest possible brush. However, even the elderly’s paranoia can go too far, which is why Death Wish 2 feels like an exercise in depravity rather than a satisfying revenge thriller.
It opens with some laughably over-the-top thugs (one of them played by Laurence Fishburne) harassing Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), who’s out on the Santa Monica pier with his daughter (Robin Sherwood). As you might recall from the original, non-Cannon Death Wish, Carol Kersey (played by Kathleen Tolan in that film) had the misfortune of watching New York hoodlums rape and murder her mother before raping her. It left her near-catatonic, and as Death Wish 2 opens, she’s still mute but is well enough to get released from the mental hospital into Paul’s care.
The thugs steal Paul’s wallet, and he lets it go because he’s just trying to show Carol a good time. See, in Death Wish 2, writer David Engelbach and director Michael Winner still want to have Paul balance a normal life with insane vigilante justice. He’s back to playing the mild-mannered architect, in love with radio journalist Geri Nichols (Bronson’s real-life wife Jill Ireland) and desperate to ensure his daughter’s safety. Letting the thugs steal his wallet is not the way to ensure her safety, because the thugs immediately descend on Paul’s apartment. Director Michael Winner leers eerily as the thugs take turns brutally raping Paul’s maid (Silvana Gallardo). When Paul and Carol interrupt them, they kidnap her and take her to an abandoned warehouse, where they giggle like 12-year-olds as they fondle her breasts, then rape her. The reenactment of her earlier trauma causes Carol to jump out a window, impaling herself on a wrought-iron fence.
Distraught for obvious reasons, Paul takes matters into his own hands. He rents a room in a flophouse and stakes out the Hollywood slums, slowly but surely taking out the thugs who killed his daughter. Desperate to solve the slew of vigilante killings, an LAPD detective (Ben Frank) calls in Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia), the NYPD detective who “solved” the vigilante killings in the first film. Ochoa fingers Paul Kersey, going so far as to break into Geri’s apartment to explain that Paul is a merciless vigilante. One of the few joys of the film is watching Charles Bronson attempt to talk his way out of hot water with Geri.
Despite the film’s problems, at this point Bronson still tried to make Paul Kersey into an actual character rather than a cartoonish superhero. As in the first one, he gives an impressively balanced performance. He plays Paul as a thoughtful, quiet man who feels more righteous indignation than bloodlust and wants desperately to keep Geri out of the mess he’s secretly creating on a gang-choked stretch of Hollywood Boulevard. This performance alone very nearly tempers the over-the-top depiction of criminals and violence, but the numerous rape sequences are just too salacious.
Much of the film is an orgy of graphic violence and gratuitous (and rather unpleasant, considering the endless amount of rape featured throughout the film) nudity. Watching Paul track and kill the thugs is mildly satisfying, but the whole movie is bound to leave any moviegoer with a shred of decency feeling vaguely ill. Add to that the typically shoddy Cannon production values, and the whole thing comes off like an over-the-top snuff film.
Despite the film’s unseemly content, Death Wish 2 was a huge hit for Cannon and Bronson, garnering a staggering $45 million at the box-office and spawning three more Cannon-produced sequels. How will those stack up to part two? I’ll be taking a look at each sequel during the month of November, so you’ll find out soon enough.