PENITENTIARY II: Grindhouse Goes Funhouse In The Fanaka Style

Penitentiary was the kind of hit that came out of nowhere, a film that was successful because it was so utterly unique and filled a niche that Hollywood either didn’t know about or didn’t care to fill.  When a film like that is a smash hit – and Penitentiary made over $7 million domestic on a budget of $100,000 – it demands a follow-up. Fanaka delivered one but did so on his own defiant, totally independent terms. The result is one of the strangest sequels ever made, a funhouse-style labyrinth of eccentricity that will leave even fans of the first film with their jaws on the floor.

Penitentiary II has a strange, convoluted setup: Too Sweet (Leon Isaac Kennedy) is out of prison, living with the family of his successful sister (Peggy Blow) and working as a custodian at a boxing gym because he refuses to fight.  However, fate throws him a curveball when a vengeful Half Dead (Ernie Hudson replacing Badja Djola) breaks out of prison and murders Too Sweet’s long-suffering girlfriend.  This makes Too Sweet decide to put his boxing gloves back on.  What follows is a surreal, jaggedly-structured saga that involves training with Mr. T, more treachery from Half Dead and not one but two return bouts with former prison foe Jesse “The Bull” Amos (Donovan Womack).

First things first: Penitentiary II isn’t a film that works in the conventional sense, not even by the esoteric terms that Fanaka set up in the first film. The first half-hour is amazingly messy. Fanaka ret-cons the last film’s storyline, awkwardly shoves backstory into dialogue alongside speechifying monologues and has characters behave or change behavior in ways that defy logic. The filmmaking is full of strange flourishes (the opening scene and titles are followed by a Star War-inspired text crawl full of odd verbiage), abrupt cuts into and out of scenes and whiplash-inducing transitions. Even Kennedy is off-kilter, delivering a bizarre performance full of Shatnerian pauses and hambone emoting.

But don’t throw in the towel: once Penitentiary II reaches its first boxing scene, something interesting happens if you’re willing to tune into its oddball wavelength.  The pileup of odd flourishes and constant rulebreaking hits critical mass and coalesces into its own bizarro-world version of cinematic storytelling.  Suddenly it doesn’t matter that the plotting makes little sense or that the dialogue and characterizations are stilted. It becomes a funhouse mirror held up to the original film, one that gives you the option to dive down a rabbit hole into its campy vision of sequel conventions and ghetto-fabulous style.

If you can do that, there’s tons of fun to be had in Penitentiary II. The crowd for the boxing matches include saxophone and conga players who freestyle throughout the fights. There’s a subplot during the boxing matches with a dice-throwing midget prisoner (Tony Cox) trying to earn the money to pay for sex with a prostitute. Mr. T suddenly takes on genie-style gold lamé clothing and totes around a lamp that spews purple smoke when he pays verbal tribute to Too Sweet. Half Dead has a fascinating love-hate relationship with a girlfriend (Ebony Wright) where potato salad smashed in one’s face constitutes foreplay. A doubting sportscaster has a dramatic conversion to Too Sweet’s cause mid-fight, delivering a rah-rah monologue to the t.v. camera.

If that’s not wild enough for you, just wait until you reach Penitentiary II‘s triple climax.  It features Too Sweet taking on Jesse in the ring while critically injured, Mr. T doing battle with Half Dead in the locker room and Too Sweet’s family having to deal with a home invasion from Half Dead’s goons, all of this capped off with an uproarious freeze-frame “group photo” ending.

As the above list of highlights suggests, Penitentiary II is a very different experience from its predecessor.  Instead of a film about serious topics with a sometimes tough and sometimes surreal style, you get a film that uses the requirements of a sequel as an excuse for a headlong plunge into the weirdest diversions an exploitation film can explore without falling apart. If Penitentiary is cult fare, this is camp fare… but those who can roll with switch in style will receive a one-of-a-kind experience that only Jamaa Fanaka could dream up.

Blu-Ray Notes: Vinegar Syndrome issued this one in a blu-ray/DVD combo pack.  It’s got an impressive new transfer and a bevy of extras new and old. If you want this film, it’s your best option.

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