Repugnant, poorly made shite.
Death Wish, despite not being in the same calibre as other hugely controversial 1970’s films like A Clockwork Orange, The Devils, The Exorcist and so on, was a pretty effective, debate-worthy thriller regarding vigilantism, well made, and considering Charles Bronson has got to be the most stoic actor ever, well performed. It was directed by Michael Winner, who regularly hovers near the top of Worst Director Ever lists thanks to his tacky, exploitative, wooden approach. He mostly sticks to insurance commercials and restaurant criticism these days, but in his late 70’s-late 80’s ‘heyday’, he made hugely crass, censor-baiting and frankly awful piles of trash, none more exploitative than 1981’s Death Wish II.
As far as censorship goes, this has got to be one of the most controversial films in British history. In an era when nearly everything finally gets passed uncut or has their bans lifted, Death Wish II still has nearly four minutes missing. I’ve read up on the missing minutes too, and it’s easy to see why they’re not present in the UK version. The chief offenders are a couple of rape sequences near the start that I’ve never seen in their complete version, and you know what? I’m not exactly pining for their re-inclusion. Now, and let’s get totally obvious here, rape is horrific. It happens, and it’s horrible. So is murder. Yet, murder can be presented on film in ways that are strangely poetic, spectacular, funny, intense… we can watch murder on screen, and it can be artistic. Rape on the other hand, is far less acceptable, and there’s no real way of presenting it other than the way it should be presented; horrifically. Any attempts to justify the rape, side with the rapist, or film it in a way that’s sexy, and you’re in trouble. You just can’t make light of it, or make it something that it isn’t. And you know what, I’m fine with that. Some things should remain taboo.
Does that mean I approve of censorship? Now we’re in tough territory. It’s easy to say that all censorship is wrong, but what happens when the film really does appear to be totally irresponsible? The thing is I haven’t seen Death Wish II uncut, so I’m really in no position to comment. The judgements I pass on this film are towards a version that is not the same one the censors got so angry about. So, maybe I should be quiet. However, it’s pretty obvious from even the cut version of Death Wish II that rape is being used as nothing more than a spectacle, a set-piece. This is a sequel, and for more or less the SAME THING to happen again to Bronson’s family/loved ones just smacks of cash-in/exploitation. To quote Die Hard 2, ‘How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?’
In the first gang-rape sequence, involving Bronson’s housemaid, Winner’s just giving the public more of what they (don’t) want. It seems designed to up the shock of the first film, in the same way that horror sequels need to make the deaths gorier and more outrageous than before to pull in the crowds. And that’s just the cut version. In the uncut version, this sequence goes on far longer. Nudity is expected in a rape scene, but Winner lingers on the details way too much. Was there really a need for a carefully posed (in other words, we see everything) dead naked body? The second rape, involving Bronson’s daughter, is almost well-directed at the start. Bronson’s daughter was raped in the first film and has been left mute and stuck in arrested development. Before she is raped, it’s chilling how she doesn’t even externally react, left numb by the horrors she has experienced, and is now experiencing again. But the film spoils it all by lingering on her breasts like we’re watching a soft-core porno, then goes way overboard by having her jump out of the window and land on a set of railings horror-movie style. As films like The Omen, Saw and Final Destination shamefully but entertainingly show us, death can be a special effect. Rape can’t be the same thing. These two scenes are ugly (as they should be), but worryingly, they feel ugly from a directorial and scriptwriting viewpoint too, in a way that the rape scene in the first film didn’t, because that wasn’t some cash-in sequel that takes a very sensitive subject and literally defiles it. Compare this to something like 1988’s The Accused, which presents rape in the only way it really should be shown (sorry to be a prude, but there you go), and that’s in a realistic and straightforward way.
What’s more insulting than the rape scenes themselves are the way the film carries on like nothing has happened. Now, a defender of Death Wish II could claim that Bronson’s near-total lack of emotion at the scenes we have just witnessed could be to do with the fact that he has already been rendered numb by the events in the first film. Or, it could be that Winner just does not give a shit about anything like that and that these rape scenes were included to give Bronson another opportunity to kick some ass. Seriously, the lack of empathy is almost alien. He treats his daughter’s death like some minor inconvenience. After the ugliness of the first act, Death Wish II settles into regular trash cinema and doles out the violence which, as horrible as it is, is a lot more palatable than what we’ve already seen in the first act. Bronson wears a woolly hat and books a room in a dingy hotel in a dingy area full of pimps, prostitutes, piss-heads and more rescue missions than you’d think was possible on a single stretch of high street. Bronson tracks down each member of the gang, kills them, moves on, has an awkward scene with his real-life wife Jill Ireland (who can’t really act at all) to pad out the running time, and then does some more killing. He tracks down the last of the gang, gets him electrocuted, walks out, and roll credits. Now, some of the deaths in this film are quite funny – two stand out in particular.
One of them involves a horrifically bearded little shit of a rapist who is making some deal with some other criminals in some abandoned dive – Bronson comes in, kills one of them, tells the others to get lost but demands the little shit stay put. He looks scared, as he should be, and Bronson notices he’s wearing (and clutching) a cross around his neck. Bronson asks him if he believes in Jesus, to which the shit whimpers ‘Yes, yes I do’. Bronson literally sighs the reply ‘Well, you’re gonna meet him’ (he’s more or less asleep during the film) and shoots him through his hand, through the cross and through him. Just for good measure, he shoots again, making the corpse hilariously re-animate like a bloody zombie or like when a patient is buzzed with one of those defibulators that make them leap off the operating table. Now, you might notice that I’m making light of death, laughing at it, in a way that I wouldn’t do with a rape scene. Jesus, I even found the supposedly funny rape scene involving a naked woman and a severed head in Re-Animator more messed-up than funny, though some claim to find that scene hilarious. You can laugh at death. You can’t laugh at rape.
OK, back to the death, and the other one that got me howling with laughter was the one that is inflicted upon Laurence Fishburne III. That’s right, he’s dropped the ‘Larry’ from Apocalypse Now, added some Roman numerals, and with this film, effectively soiled his career for a few good years, after which he’d go back to Larry, and later on back again to Laurence, though without the ‘III’. Anyway, Bronson’s in stalking-mode, spying on Larry and his scum-buddies dancing pretty badly to ghetto-blaster music, all of them looking more like the rejects from Fame rather than the sicko criminals we saw earlier on in the film. Bronson follows them as they meet-up with some more target practise-fodder, and they’re all blown away, but none more spectacularly than Larry, who attempts to shield his face from an incoming bullet by holding the ghetto-blaster in front of him. The bullet goes clean through the boom-box and gets Larry RIGHT IN THE FACE, after which he spits out loads of blood, and I swear, even a tooth. That’s right, Winner is such a stickler for accuracy he made sure that his incisor spilled out, because it’s that kind of movie. Realism counts.
They’re the only two worthwhile elements in this sequel, which aren’t enough to elevate the film into hilarious bad-movie territory. We’d have to wait for Death Wish 3 for that (why is the second film spelt with Roman numerals but third with a number?), which really is an amazing experience to behold, up there with Commando and Stone Cold in the realm of gut-bustingly hilarious B-movies. That film also features a rape scene, but somehow, in the context of the film, it’s nowhere near as offensive as anything in Death Wish II, just another schlock element to add to the proceedings. The cop who investigated the vigilante killings in the first film re-appears in DWII to track down Bronson, but he doesn’t last long, taking a round in the belly as soon as he gets involved in the action, but surviving long enough to tell our comatose hero to ‘go get the motherfuckers’. It’s almost like the equivalent of the cook taking forever to get to the hotel in The Shining only to get literally axed as soon as he arrives, but here it’s nowhere near as tragic – here’s it’s just, oh right, whatever.
Death Wish II is crass AND boring, an astonishing feat to pull off when you think about it, but you can always trust Winner to not deliver the goods. Incidentally, the wildly erratic soundtrack comes courtesy of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, and it veers from sentimental string-swept rubbish, to dated rock-funk to an admittedly very effective ‘growling’ theme for whenever Bronson’s walking and stalking the streets. It’s the only genuinely great bit about the film.