The original Death Wish mixed catharsis, provocative ideas and shock power in a way that finally made Charles Bronson a leading man in the U.S., paving the way for him to enjoy a string of mainstream star vehicles throughout the ’70s. However, his star was dimming as the ’80s dawned and he returned to Death Wish to rejuvenate his career. The film that resulted gave him that hit ($16 million at the U.S. box office alone and that’s in 1981 dollars). However, it was also a meaner, cruder piece of work that would send his screen image in a different, less reputable direction.
The plot of Death Wish II starts with Paul Kersey (Bronson) living in Los Angeles, working as an architect and caring for his catatonic daughter (Robin Sherwood). He runs afoul of a group of street crooks that includes Lawrence Fishburne in the film’s opening moments: they steal his wallet and go to his home to follow up, raping and killing his housekeeper (Silvana Gallardo) and kidnapping his daughter, who is also raped before she commits suicide. In short order, Kersey returns to the streets to gun down the crooks. Subplots include the return of his detective nemesis (Vincent Gardenia) from the first film and a romance with a local reporter (Jill Ireland).
Death Wish II was a commercial success and has built a cult following in the years that followed thanks to its gleefully brutal style. However, it’s more interesting today as an artifact of grindhouse history today than as a film.
The film’s infamy rests heavily upon the back-to-back rape scenes that occur in the first act. They’re the nastiest examples of the form ever to make it into an R-rated film: brutal, prolonged and captured in the most lurid style possible by director/uncredited co-writer Michael Winner. He always had a love for working over the audience with shocks but really goes overboard here. The first scene is an endurance test that will make you feel bad for Gallardo and the second is eroticized in a really disturbing and artistically irresponsible way. They’re a deal-breaker for many viewers and it’s hard to begrudge them for turning away.
However, if you can look past the shocking first act, what follows… still isn’t that good. At the story level, it’s a total mess. The script, credited to David Engelbach, loses steam after the first act, alternating between cartoonish scenes of Kersey stalking the crooks and half-hearted subplots of people almost but not quite catching onto Kersey. The scenes with the reporter are particularly awful: these were included to give Ireland, Bronson’s wife, a role and they clash tonally with the rest of the film, adding a superfluous romance that seems to have walked in from a dull t.v. movie.
Winner’s direction doesn’t help matters. He maintains a solid pace but doesn’t really seem to care about anything other than staging the shock spectacles. He gets off the occasional good setpiece – the best is an extended multi-character shootout in a park – but these are balanced by ludicrous bits like one insane crook tackling and stabbing his way through a battalion of cops. The dramatic stuff is consistently flatlines throughout the movie, particularly those Bronson/Ireland scenes, and the film is rather cheap-looking, to boot.
In retrospect, it’s easy to look back on Death Wish II as the dividing line of Charles Bronson’s career. With a handful of exceptions, most of his remaining big screen vehicles would be similarly sleazy affairs largely made for Cannon Films. Many of them turned out to be quite entertaining but they would also see Bronson step down from mainstream movie star to exploitation movie star (for what it’s worth, Winner hit the skids even faster after this with infamous camp classics like Scream For Help). Bronson remained a valuable name to the end but Death Wish II is where the last gasp of respectability, at least to Hollywood, drifted away.
Blu-Ray Notes: You’ve got two excellent options for this one. There is a Shout Factory release that is uncut and sports a commentary track from Bronson expert Paul Talbot. The second is a double-bill set of Death Wish II and Death Wish III that lacks the commentary but also includes two alternate cuts of Death Wish II with notes from Talbot and other extras, to boot. Either is a fine option and obsessives will want both.