Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Heavy Action: Death Wish 2 / The Exterminator

"Revenge is a dish best served cold." - Old Klingon Proverb

The revenge movie is a particularly tricky subset of the action genre. We want to be on the hero's side, so he or she has to be on a mission we can get behind. At the same time, if the hero goes too far, he or she could lose our sympathy. Kill Bill offers the best and most recent example of the genre, as it gives us a hero with a great reason for revenge and a kickass way of going about getting it. The movie gets it all right. Today's Heavy Action focuses on two revengesploitation movies that get it all wrong, but in very different ways.

The original Death Wish, released in 1974 (and based on a novel by Brian Garfield, affording it some degree of legitimacy), is more of a '70s-style crime film than it is an action movie -- the logical progression of Dirty Harry, taking the guns out of the hands of the police and placing them in the hands of ordinary, angry citizens. Though Charles Bronson was already an action star of sorts when it was released (he was in The Dirty Dozen, after all), it was Death Wish that would define the persona we would come to associate with Bronson for the next 25 years of his career. So it's no surprise that a sequel to the movie would be commissioned, even if it was almost a decade later. Death Wish 2 ushered the franchise into the 1980s, with all the negativity that might imply.

As Death Wish 2 opens, Paul Kersey (Bronson) is still an architect now living in Los Angeles, despite relocating to Chicago at the end of Death Wish. His daughter is still catatonic and residing in a hospital, but Kersey is able to pick her up with his new girlfriend (played by Bronson's real-life wife, Jill Ireland). They go to a carnival, where Kersey's wallet is stolen by a group of thugs (including a young Laurence Fishburne); he chases them down and gets his wallet back, failing to realize that they have his address. They show up at his house rape his maid over and over (more on this in a second); when he arrives home with his daughter, they kidnap her and beat him unconscious. Then they rape her, and she dies trying to escape (or kills herself, depending on how you read the scene). Kersey finds out and gets a touch of the ol' Death Wish again, spending the rest of the movie hunting down the criminals responsible and administering vengeance. Also, when more vigilante murders start happening, the cop from the last movie (Vincent Gardenia) is called from New York to L.A. to help with the case.
So back to the maid. We get ("get?") to watch the maid raped repeatedly, basically in real time, and it is awful because rape is awful, and a director lingering on rape for entertainment value is awful. The actors playing the gang members, however, are so cartoonishly over the top that they're like extras from a Troma movie, and the mix of tones if jarring. Are the actors trying to be funny? Or are they just that bad at acting? Were they directed to act that way? It makes an uncomfortable scene even more uncomfortable, because on top of being repelled by the actions of the characters on screen, you find yourself repelled at the way the scene is constructed and acted, and then you realize that a group of people were all paid to put this together, and then you're repelled by the "artistic" and "commercial" aspects of it all -- which is to say there aren't any, but not for lack of trying.

Also, in the first movie, Paul Kersey is driven to vigilantism because his wife is raped and murdered and his daughter is beaten until she's catatonic. The movie is a shlocky revenge fantasy, but it at least attempts to explore the psychology of a man so filled with grief and rage that he goes over the edge. In Death Wish 2, Kersey's wife is already's taking revenge for...the maid? I mean, sure, his daughter is raped and murdered, why not just have it be that? Would raping and murdering his daughter not be enough? It's the loss of The Help that pushes Kersey over the edge this time? Well, it was 1982. Reagan's America, right?

The first 20 minutes of Death Wish 2 are so ugly and repellent that it would be nearly impossible for any movie to recover. Death Wish 2 does not. The whole sequence casts a pall over the entire movie, a) because it's impossible to enjoy oneself after sitting through that and b) because the film doesn't even allow you to try. Instead of making us forget what happened (in a way) by going bigger and crazier, Death Wish 2 settles in to tedium and a series of underwhelming showdowns. Over and over, we're forcibly reminded of the earlier brutality, not because each murder Kersey commits brings him (and us) closer to justice, but because the scales are so out of balance that we can't help but feel it. Watching (SPOILER) Laurence Fishburne get shot in the face (through a boom box, no less, because it was the early '80s and this was our understanding of black culture) is great and all until we remember the horror he was party to. Getting shot isn't good enough. Or maybe that's just the bloodthirsty sociopath in me.

One of the big problems with Death Wish 2 -- aside from its cheap, exploitative ugliness -- is that it doesn't work as a revenge fantasy. The worst fates in the movie are suffered by the maid, who is raped a bunch of times and then has her head bashed in, and Kersey's daughter, who is raped, jumps out a window and is impaled on a wrought iron fence. Here's a thought: if you're going to make a movie about a character getting revenge for the horrible things that were done to his family, you probably want to make sure that the revenge is even MORE horrible -- an eye (and an arm and a leg) for an eye and all that. If the idea is to provide some sort of power-trip wish fulfillment fantasy for the audience -- and I think that's what the Death Wish series is pretty much about -- you have to offer cheap, bloody catharsis by making sure the motherfuckers pay for what they've done. Sometimes, just dying ain't good enough. Death Wish 2 lingers so long on the violence perpetrated again the two women and so little time on the punishment of those responsible that one starts to wonder just whose side the movie is on.
Some of the stuff works. Kersey eventually has to disguise himself as a doctor to take down Nirvana, the lead gang member, and there's something absurdly funny about Bronson running around a hospital in a blood-spattered lab coat. I like, too, how several people he encounters during the movie enable him to keep getting revenge -- Vincent Gardenia, an orderly, etc. The idea that "regular" people could support Kersey's mission is one that would run throughout the Death Wish series. Plus, this is one of the few (only?) entries in the franchise to introduce a female character that is neither raped nor murdered. I guess that's progress.

Here are the two most interesting things about Death Wish 2: it was the first in the series produced through Cannon Films, the studio that would release pretty much all of the trash that Bronson would make for the rest of the '80s (a list that includes several more Death Wish movies, as well as Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects, Assassination, 10 to Midnight, Messenger of Death and Murphy's Law). Theirs was a very specific aesthetic to '80s action, and it's amazing how consistent that aesthetic is not just to the rest of Bronson's output in the decade, but to pretty much every Cannon movie. There's no mistaking one of their movies for another studio's. Also, the score to the movie was composed by Jimmy Page. So, you know, "Immigrant Song," "Stairway to Heaven," "Score to Death Wish 2." The score is neither the best nor the worst thing about the movie.

Death Wish 2 exists uncomfortably between the gritty "realism" of the original film and the fucking insanity of Death Wish 3 (a Hall of Fame movie that will see its very own Heavy Action column sooner than later), which makes it a movie for no one. I've never really been a Charles Bronson fan, but he's not the problem with this one. Though it combines two things I love -- the action movie and the exploitation movie -- it does so in such a way that it makes it impossible to enjoy either. The ugliness gets in the way, and the action is never able to satisfy.
The Exterminator (1980)

Writer/director James Glickenhaus' exploitation action movie The Exterminator goes all the way in the opposite direction from Death Wish 2, giving its hero a totally disproportionate response to a pretty routine bit of violence. Paul Kersey's daughter is raped and impaled on a fence and he retaliates by shooting people. The Exterminator's friend gets beat up and he drops some motherfuckers into a meat grinder.

Robert Ginty (The Paper Chase) stars as John Eastland, a Vietnam veteran who apparently flips out after his BFF (played by Steve James, aka The Black Guy From Every Action Movie Who Kicks a Ton of Ass But Doesn't Survive to the End) is hospitalized by a group of thugs who stab him with a meathook (Cobra-style) because he beats them up for trying to steal beer. The movie doesn't start here, of course. It goes all the way back to the Vietnam War, as Ginty and James and a few other soldiers are captured and tortured by the Viet Cong. One of American soldiers is slowly beheaded in what is the movie's most disturbing image (effects courtesy of Stan Winston, RIP). It's awful. Ginty and James escape and slaughter everyone.

Then we go into the opening credits, scored to the gentle ballad "Heal It" by Roger Bowling. Listen to it. Please keep in mind that this song immediately follows one of the nastiest and most realistic beheadings ever put on film:

It doesn't really match the tone of what promises to be a sleazy exploitation action movie, right? If I was about to see Arthur, it might make sense. Instead, it's the theme to The Exterminator. The first few minutes of the movie suggest something so demented that it's impossible not to be intrigued -- there's no telling what direction Glickenhaus is going to go, and that lends the movie an element of danger. That promise is never delivered upon, making The Exterminator a disappointment as both an action movie and an exploitation movie. In that way, I guess it's noteworthy. Most bad action movies only fail in one way.

The rest of the movie follows Ginty's Death Wish-inspired vigilante killing spree, which includes shooting some of the guys responsible for paralyzing his best friend and letting some others...get eaten by rats? Maybe. His bloodlust isn't sated after taking out the thugs, though, so he starts going after other criminals. He takes on the mobsters that rip off the warehouse he works (worked) at with James, dropping one of them into a meat grinder. He busts in on a child prostitution ring, shoots the pimp in the balls and sets a customer (who happens to be a state senator) on fire. Then his rampage kind of gets out of control -- he stabs a dog with an electric knife and kills his best friend by taking him off life support. Slow down, Exterminator. I'll grant you that the dog was being kind of a dick, but your best friend? Technically, he gives the ok, but maybe he wasn't in his right mind at the time. The least The Exterminator could have done was at least talk to the guy's wife ahead of time, instead of going there afterwards to tell her that her husband is dead. Um, there's a REASON for that, Exterminator, and it's you playing grabby hands with a power cord.

There's also a cop who's pursuing The Exterminator, played by Christopher George of City of the Living Dead fame, I guess filling in for the Vincent Gardenia character from Death Wish. A lot of the movie's running time is devoted to his efforts, as well as his burgeoning relationship with a doctor played by Samantha Eggar. That's fine, I guess, even though it has very little to do with the movie at all and doesn't amount to much (but we do get to see him cook a hot dog at his desk using two forks and an electrical outlet). The cop stuff does help to layer in some anti-CIA paranoia, which would eventually become a staple of most of Steven Seagal's movies. Did The Exterminator really influence Hard to Kill or Above the Law? Probably not. Seagal only kills for justice, which we know because so many of his movies have the word "justice" in the title (Out for Justice, Mercenary For Justice, True Justice, Urban Justice), where as The Exterminator kills...well, it's sort of for justice, but it also seems to be because he's insane.
Let's talk about The Exterminator for a second. For starters, Robert Ginty might be miscast, and by that I mean that Robert Ginty is very miscast. He is one of the least convincing action heroes of all time, looking more like your friend's dad who used to pick you guys up from the library. That would be fine if it were a movie about a dad who goes the library to pick up his kid and his kid's friend, only to learn that they've been kidnapped or (God forbid) murdered and then decides to go on a killing spree to take revenge. In that instance, GINTY'S YOUR MAN. But he's positioned as a badass soldier who can singlehandedly wipe out a bunch of Vietcong and then, years later, still kill half of New York City's underworld without missing a step. In this, he is less convincing. The movie would have been SO MUCH better off by having Ginty and James switch roles, since I could totally buy Steve James as a badass capable of taking out scores of bad guys and Ginty as a guy who gets the shit kicked out of him and dies in a hospital bed. Apparently, James was originally hired just as a stuntman with a small role as a bartender, but made such an impression on the director that he had his role expanded to become The Exterminator's best friend. His role should have been expanded even further to make him The Exterminator. I'm not going to suggest that race played into it, but maybe Glickenhaus wasn't interested in having a black action hero in his exploitation movie. At least many of the bad guys that The Exterminator kills are white, so there's less of that white-guy-kills-black-guys subtext that was on display in Death Wish 2.

Also, it's established in the opening minutes of the movie (during the most elaborate and expensive sequence, shot at the end of production to give it some A-list value) that The Exterminator fought in Vietnam and was a POW. This explains how he knows how to use weapons and kill people and stuff, but doesn't inform the character beyond that. He's not a John Rambo type, traumatized by the war and stuck in a cycle of violence. At least, I don't think. Explaining his actions in the movie as being those of a crazy vet is maybe the only thing that can account for just how far off the deep end he goes, but the movie never makes those connections clear. He's just a guy who was in Vietnam, and then his friend gets beat up, and then he starts murdering people in graphic and elaborate ways.

Aside from being a cheap, schlocky Death Wish rip-off (a movie that's pretty cheap and schlocky to begin with), The Exterminator is another movie that exists to make its audience afraid of New York City -- or any big city, for that matter. It was a trend that was popular in the early 1980s in exploitation movies like Maniac and Vigilante and most of the Death Wish movies. Ironically, the main place where these exploitation movies would play was New York's Times Square, meaning audiences were supposed to go see these movies in the very city they were being told was the most dangerous place on Earth.

One of the reasons we action fans love the genre is because of how much fun action movies are. Even the serious or super-intense ones (like The Raid: Redemption) are fun because of their energy or their violence or the inventiveness of the fight choreography. But when you strip away all of that stuff and add in a bunch of ugliness and sleaze, you get movies like Death Wish 2 and The Exterminator -- movies that are designed to make us vicariously enjoy revenge but which really just make us want to shower.


  1. Dude, it was JIMMY PAGE who composed the score for Death Wish II, not Robert Plant. Where else would that trippy, whacked-out guitar work come from?