To quote John McClane, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”
It has been eight years since Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) lost his wife and single-handedly cleaned up New York City. The first Death Wish ended with Paul in Chicago, preparing to gun down a new group of criminals. I guess Chicago didn’t take because, at the start of Death Wish II, Paul is in Los Angeles and he’s working as an architect again. He has a new girlfriend, a bleeding heart liberal reporter named Geri (Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real-life wife) who is against the death penalty and who has no idea that Paul used to be New York’s most notorious vigilante. Having finally been released from the mental institution, Carol (Robin Sherwood) is living with her father but is now mute.
Crime rates are soaring in Los Angeles and why not? The legal system is more concerned with the rights of the criminals than the victims and Paul has retired from patrolling the streets. But when a group of cartoonish thugs rape and kill his housekeeper and cause his daughter to fall out of a window while trying to escape them, Paul picks up his gun and sets out for revenge.
Death Wish II was not the first sequel to Death Wish. Brian Garfield, the author of the novel on which Death Wish was based, never intended for Paul to be seen as a hero and was disgusted by what he saw as being the film’s glorification of violence. As “penance,” he wrote a sequel called Death Sentence, in which Paul discovered that he had inspired an even more dangerous vigilante. When Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus bought the rights to produce a second Death Wish film, they decided not to use Garfield’s sequel and instead went with a story that was co-written by Golan.
It’s the same basic story as the first film. Again, Paul is a mild-mannered architect who is a liberal during the day and a gun-toting reactionary at night. Again, it’s a home invasion and a death in the family that sets Paul off. Again, Paul gets help from sympathetic citizens who don’t care that the police commissioner (Anthony Franciosa) wants him off the streets. Jeff Goldblum played a rapist with a switch blade in the first film. This time, it’s Laurence Fishburne who fills the role. (Fishburne also carries a radio, which he eventually learns cannot be used to block bullets.) Even Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) returns, coming down to Los Angeles to see if Paul has returned to his old ways.
The main difference between the first two Death Wish films is that Death Wish II is a Cannon film, which means that it is even less concerned with reality than the first film. In Death Wish II, the criminals are more flamboyant, the violence is more graphic, and Paul is even more of a relentless avenger than in the first film. In the first Death Wish, Paul threw up after fighting a mugger. In the second Death Wish, he sees that one of the men who raped his daughter is wearing a cross, leading to the following exchange:
“Do you believe in Jesus?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, you’re going to meet him.”
Death Wish II is the best known of the Death Wish sequels. It made the most money and, when I was a kid, it used to show on TV constantly. The commercials always featured the “You believe in Jesus?” exchange and, every morning after we saw those commercials, all the kids at school would walk up to each other and say, “You believe in Jesus? Well, you’re going to meet him.” It drove the teachers crazy.
Overall, Death Wish II is a lousy film. Michael Winner, who was always more concerned with getting people into the theaters than anything else, directs in a sledgehammer manner that makes his work on the first film look subtle. He obscenely lingers over every rape and murder, leaving no doubt that he is more interested in titillating the audience than getting them to share Paul’s outrage. The script is also weak, with Geri so poorly written that she actually gets more upset about Paul going out at night than she does when she learns that Paul’s daughter has died. When Paul sets out to track down the gang, his method is to merely wander around Los Angeles until he stumbles across them. It doesn’t take long for Paul to start taking them out but no one in the gang ever seems to be upset or worried that someone is obviously stalking and killing them.
There are a few good things about the film. Charles Bronson was always a better actor than he was given credit for and it’s always fun to watch Paul try to balance his normal daily routine with his violent night life. Whenever Geri demands to know if he’s been shooting people, Paul looks at her like he is personally offended that she could possibly think such a thing. Also, the criminals themselves are all so cartoonishly evil that there’s never any question that Paul is doing the world a favor by gunning them down. For many otherwise sensible viewers, a movie like Death Wish II may be bad but it is also cathartic. It offers up a simple solution to a complex issue. In real life, a city full of Paul Kerseys would lead to innocent people getting killed for no good reason. But in the world of Death Wish II, no one out after nightfall is innocent so there’s no need to worry about shooting the wrong person.
Finally, the film’s score was written by the legendary Jimmy Page. The studio wanted Isaac Hayes to do the score but Winner asked his neighbor, Page. Page took the film, retreated into his studio, and returned with a bluesy score that would turn out to be the best thing about the movie. The soundtrack was the only one of Page’s solo projects to be released on Led Zeppelin’s record label, Swan Song Records.
Tomorrow, Bronson returns with Death Wish 3!