The Great Cannon Film Watch-Through: Death Wish 2

220px-Death_Wish_II

I’m a movie vigilante.

Details:

Directed by Michael Winner

Featuring Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Vincent Gardenia, J.D. Cannon, Anthony Franciosa, and (!) Laurence Fishburne

Released 2/20/1982

Special Shout Out – music by Jimmy Page

IMDB Synopsis (via rcs0411@yahoo.com) Paul Kersey, the vigilante, now lives in LA with his daughter, who is still recovering from her attack. He also has a new woman in his life. One day while with them, Kersey is mugged by some punks, Kersey fights back, but they get away. The leader, wanting to get back at Kersey, goes to his house, but Kersey and his daughter Carol are not there. The muggers rape his housekeeper, and when Kersey and his daughter arrive, they knock him out and kidnap her. After they assault her, she leaps out of a window to her death. Kersey then grabs his gun and goes after them. When the LA authorities, deduce they have a vigilante, they decide to consult with New York, who had their vigilante problem. Now the New York officials, knowing that Kersey lives in LA, fears that he’s back to his old habit. Fearing that Kersey, when caught will reveal that they let him go instead of prosecuting him send Inspector Ochoa to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Minutes of Interest:

00:40- Good ol’ Jimmy Page is on the case.

00:52- Cannon went all out on these helicopter shots of Los Angeles.

01:12- Laurence Fishburne III!

01:30- Radio exposition! “homicides up 79%, robberies are up 68%, aggravated assault and other violent crimes are up 59%, rapes have increased 61%, and aggressive crimes are up, too.” She’s so specific with the other stats but just drops whatever “aggressive crimes are. Also, aren’t there a bunch of redundancies here? Aren’t homicides also violent crimes, can’t rapes be labeled as “aggressive crimes”?

02:09- War on Crime name drop. Yup, it’s the early 80s in Reagan’s America.

02:59′ “Hey, there she is now.” I love how nonchalant Paul Kersey is any scene in this movie. Bronson knows what sort of movie he’s in.

03:20- Girlfriend: “Oh, and Los Angeles Magazine (is that real?) has gone for my article on criminal rehabilitation!” Kersey: “That’s great.” You said it, Chuck, you said it.

04:03- “You’re her father, Mr Kersey. You can only give her your love. And your prayers, too.” Well, fuck you too Dr. Psychiatrist. What am I keeping my daughter here for? Can’t you do something?

04:36- I’m so sad for Kersey’s daughter Carol. There’s plenty of issues percolating through Death Wish 2 but her character makes me plain miserable. All she wants is ice cream and ends up raped and suicidal because her dad tried to get her a cone. This is where the skeeziness of Michael Winner starts seeping in.

04:56- Thugs! But, like the United Colors of Benetton version.

05:32- Ew, put your tongue away late 70s rocker.

05:39- Old man running.

06:04- Once Kersey’s dodged the switchblade, you think the punk would realize he’s barking up the wrong tree.

06:05- Cardboard box block!

06:28- At least, Kersey’s trying to reform his ways by not killing winter coat/headband thug. This being a Death Wish movie, it won’t last.

06:58- Who is this sea captain that’s so tight with Carol and Kersey? I don’t think we ever *see* him again. See what I did there?

07:33- Great cut to a surprising and ominous shot of Pledge sprayed across the family portrait. Michael Winner might be a pervert and sadist but, sometimes, he knows where to put the camera.

08:00- The thug van reminds me more of the Mystery Machine than some sort of intimidating gangstermobile. Thelma and Scooby are waiting in the backseat.

08:14- Laurence Fishburne and friends want revenge on Paul Kersey so they go to his house to kill him? That’s their motivation since he roughed one of them up? That seems like a lot of work for some low level toughs. That’s more of a mob thing. They seem like the cannon fodder a crime lord would deploy, not necessarily concerned with respect and honor, more interested in muggings and hanging out in the park with their boom box.

08:36- “Supa finnne.” Looks like Morpheus took the blue pill.

08:54- That crowbar stays lit and framed in the back of your moving van? Ok, sure.

09:21- Nice composition.

10:07- The next few minutes are just terrible, filled with rape, more rape, and even more rape. It’s horrifying and excessive and doesn’t just tiptoe but long jumps beyond the usual haunts of an exploitation film. No, Michael Winner, no.

10:30- I sort of want to shut this movie off.

11:00- They’re fighting over who gets to rape this poor maid first? And Laurence Fishburne is cool with this? And they made three additional Death Wish films? Oh, boy…

11:32- This is absolutely terrible.

12:05- Laurence Fishburne is doing post-rape tai-chi. Oh, my…

12:09- I was wrong. THIS is the worst thing. Now it’s officially a snuff film. Goodness…

12:15- “Alright lady, do it quietly, do it nice.” This demonstrates the caliber of actor Fishburne is. He can deliver horrible lines that communicate menace and glee while a raped, nude housemaid is forced to give a blowjob. It’s almost sacrilege he elevates such horrible material.

13:03- Action grandpa! Crotch kick!

13:13- Crowbar clearly didn’t connect with anything.

13:15- Oh, no, Rosaria…

14:08 Bad framing and bad politics. Winner’s cinematography starts breaking down as the film progresses with strange angles and odd compositions. Why film this senator through a bundle of flags? Visually what is gained? If anything, it adds out of focus clutter to the shot. It’s even a flat medium so there’s no engaging juxtaposition or interesting lighting going on.

14:19- Again, the shot is cluttered with out of focus nonsense that does nothing beyond providing a new angle. But varying angles doesn’t guarantee good shots or enhancing cinematic storytelling.

14:34- This shot looks great. Good blocking. The visual elements of this movie are schizophrenic. Also, Pabst Blue Ribbon.

14:46- You said that already white afro thug. Later we find out his name is Nevada. Or Nirvana? It isn’t clear when the line’s delivered.

14:54- “We look all the same to whitey anyway.” I think there’s a nice bit of social commentary lingering under there. However, Michel Winner is more concerned getting the audience to the next rape scene than spotlighting issues of criminal justice and racism.

15:10- No, no, no: THIS is the worst of the worst. It’s bad enough to rape and murder a poor, innocent housemaid trying to cook dinner and watch her stories. Now the same is about to happen to Kersey’s poor, innocent teenage daughter with severe developmental impairments and obvious PTSD from the first Death Wish.

16:06- Jimmy Page’s score makes this movie. Creepy and often inappropriate but always surprising in what will sound off next.

16:38- I’m with you, Carol. After watching that, I don’t want to live anymore either. Maybe she finally found out she was in a Michael Winner movie?

16:55- What the hell is that guy dusting for prints on? A lame hallway piece of art about 8 X 10? What could be on there?

17:29- They still haven’t covered up Rosaria’s dead, naked, raped body? What kind of cops are these…oh, wait…I forgot what sort of movie I’m watching.

17:45- “We ran it down in our computer.” The police only have one? Oh, it was 1982, I guess.

18:16- Girlfriend could not give a flying fuck that Kersey was assaulted, his maid raped and murdered, and his daughter kidnapped, likely raped and murdered as well. She’s acting as if someone egged their house on Halloween.

18:54- “Get some sleep, darling.” Uh, hello! My daughter was just found gang raped and impaled on a wrought iron fence.

19:48- “It is for me,” is the one bit of emotional investment from Kersey. He’s coping by getting back to work. A mild beat. This movie is all horror without any sort of reflection or distance to make sense of the rapes and killings impacting these characters. There’s no Kersey screaming or crying in the bathroom. It’s not unlike him finding out he’s finally being charged for garbage collection.

20:34- Now, here’s the internalization this movie needs. Chop those logs! Split them!

21:17- “What is this, a building for ants?!?”

22:04- How can a radio station have so much money for a custom designed building? And what is this subplot accomplishing? So much time is spent on the economics of architecture that it scans as filler. We even get a breakdown of prices.

23:03- I feel Bronson’s acting is especially strong when he deflects the truth. There’s a shlubbiness, an everyday kind of guy vibe to him (I once heard an apocryphal quote that he once was called “Gary Cooper left out in the sun for too long”) more fitting for this film than a traditional actor playing the confident father, the dotting lover, or the action hero. His ability to shrug and trail off suit a guy wanting to avoid trouble. Which he appears to be, but isn’t. I don’t know if it’s a high compliment to pay an actor that he just doesn’t seem to care so genuinely.

23:08- Odd framing. Perhaps foreshadowing or thematic but just head scratching.

23:47- Again, another bad frame. Kersey is shot through the gap between Garibaldi’s mascot and a bucket of chicken. For what? What’s being communicated here?

24:59- Less vigilante looking than On the Waterfront longshoreman.

25:24- This stretch of seedy LA with the churches seems like it’s reaching for commentary but I can’t see it. Too many churches on one block, overflowing and song filled, while crime swirls around on the outside? Is this a critique? Or some sort of British gaze on faith in poor communities in the US?

26:44- “Spare no expense.”

28:19- Jimmy Page’s musical sting reminds me of The Terminator. Oh, that was two years later. Wait! Did The Terminator rip off this movie?

29:36- Hare Krishna! Was that a big thing in 1982?

31:43- Rats!

32:47- “Do you believe in Jesus?” “Yes I Do.” “Well, you’re gonna meet him.” Bullet!

34:00- What’s happening outside? A party? For what? If this is such a crime ridden area you’d think revelers and their balloons would be more careful.

34:54- Oh. My. God. Look at 80s news. It’s being read from grandma’s rocking chair.

35:43- Ha! Even the abused teenage prostitute won’t proposition Paul Kersey. Burn, bro.

36:38- It’s Bob Ross, the PBS art guy! Shooting a gun…? In an arcade?

37:17- Jeeze, more rape?

38:29- First, an impossible butt shot. Next, a “I don’t give a shit about acting” shot.

39:56- Good framing.

40:12- Did Kersey not hear the engine idling? Or is this truck some sort of super stealth weapon that likes to destroy wooden crates?

40:31- “Goodbye.” Maybe the most satisfying kill. If anything this should have been the climax since this is the thug that kicked off the entire series of events.

41:00- How are the paramedics allowing this to happen?

41:34- “Youse both suaw ‘im and I want da duscription.” This is supposed to be in LA? Not Brooklyn?

42:01- “You know what we ‘av ‘er? A goddamed vigilante.”

42:30- Again, another instance of social commentary creeping in that is utterly left on the cutting room floor. I want more.

42:57- Yay! Characters you know only from the first film with little to no connection to this film.

43:36- Ben Franklin’s watching.

44:29- If Kersey is up to his old tricks again? You mean murder? Old tricks is like tossing dice in the alley or tagging a brick facade, not gunning down unsavory types with bullets to the back.

44:48- Good, good, good. The panning and blocking work exceptionally.

47:16- Ugh, bored. Exposition

48:34- “Marital Aids” scans a bit different in an era that’s pre-Viagra but post-AIDS.

48:45- Someone stole Michael Jackson’s Thriller jacket.

51:15- Frank’s really happy Kersey and Girlfriend are getting down to fucking.

52:22- Jaws score?

53:39- Watch out, Frank! Did you forget your medication this morning? Also, the lady that he commandeers the car from seems very excited a stranger is bossing her around.

54:48- Does “follow that bus,” still work today? Could I do that or would the cabbie tell me to get lost?

55:36- Laurence Fishburne’s hat looks like he inspired Pharrell.

57:55- This is taking forever…

58:26- Sneaking suspicion that Charles Bronson was actually asleep on set.

59:36- “If you hear shooting, don’t worry. It’s just target practice.” Given the apathy of most of the people shown so far, I doubt the cab driver would give a crap if he heard a bazooka go off.

1:00:04- Are all gangsters obligated to have head wear? Our trio of surviving toughs all have hats and so do these vaguely Italian mobsters. One even has Robin Williams-esque rainbow suspenders. AND there’s a fanny pack involved as a cocaine smuggling device!

1:01:52- Kersey’s a crack shot, especially facing down automatic weapons with a measly 9mm.

1:02:02- Ha! That boombox won’t protect you now, Laurence Fishburne!

1:02:18- Wait for it…

1:02:20- Wait for it…

01:02:23- Yes! Getaway car going over a cliff!

01:02:27- And it exploded! This is what I expect from a Cannon movie.

01:03:20- Bye, Frank.

1:04:13- This LA detective is a pretty dirty cop. He’s got a thing for threatening defenseless people on stretchers.

1:05:09- What is with the radio station design subplot? Again, do we really need to see mock-ups of it and long discussion about the price of marble vs. concrete?

1:07:35- “Subject lighting narcotics.” I guess that’s a bit of set-up for how bat shit crazy Nevada/Nirvana gets in the following sequence. Originally went over my head. See, the wonders of multiple viewings!

1:08:48- Is it nighttime through that window into the alley?

1:09:11- Taser means nothing to me! This sequence is balls out unbelievable, even if Navada/Nirvana is ‘roiding on PCP.

1:09:50- Was Kersey watching from the room with the topless girl jacked into her music the thug ran out of?

1:11:56- “…under the influence of PCP, a mind altering drug.” Gee, thanks for the PSA, Your Honor.

1:12:20- Another instance of criminal justice commentary that gets washed straight over. Stop and slow down on these bits if you’re going to include them, Michael Winner. There’s almost a very faint pre-RoboCop style satire lurking in the script.

1:14:20- Wite-Out. The ultimate component in any vigilante’s tool kit. That and Jimmy Page’s continually surprising synth stings.

1:15:36- Bronson looks like a Shar-Pei in this close-up. So. Many. Folds.

1:17:34- More faux, proto The Terminator score.

1:19:37- You’d think this orderly would get a bit suspicious that “Dr. Carter” doesn’t know what an E.C.T. machine is. There’s even a line from the orderly saying that “Dr. Carter” and his ilk are responsible for pulling these machines from use.

1:20:57- Is Kersey staying silent as he’s shived over and over again in the shoulder and chest saying something about the resilience and toughness of the character or does Charles Bronson just not want to act? Lingering questions…

1:21:23- Ha! Nevada/Nirvana is going Buckwheat meets Kramer.

1:21:48- Yeah, hi.

1:23:23- I’m surprised Kersey doesn’t shrug and gun down these people in the crosswalk, too. Why so angry pedestrians?

1:26:49- Kersey seems so indifferent to his girlfriend (briefly fiance) leaving him. Again, is this a character thing or an acting thing?

1:27:00- Not a bad image to close on. Kersey may not get the girl but he always gets his man.

Reflection:

Of all the Cannon films I’ve come across in my Watch-Through, Death Wish 2 is the most movie of them all. That’s pedantic but it feels mainstream in the way prior films felt direct to video or belonging in some seedy side alley theater joint.

It features a known actor (though a decade past his expiration date), in a sequel to a known property, with a known director at the helm. The film looks well budgeted and it’s mostly shot and directed effectively with a score by Jimmy Page that feels well above its pay grade. In hindsight, it even features future talent (Laurence Fishburne) and would go on to spawn three additional Death Wish sequels, as well as a series of knock-offs, some helmed by Charles Bronson himself (Murphy’s Law) .

With that said, Death Wish 2 skips typical Cannon attributes, such as the cheese of The Apple, the cheapness of New Year’s Evil, or the strangeness/translation errors of Hospital Massacre or Enter the Ninja. Given how early Death Wish 2 occurs in Golan and Globus’s tenure at Cannon, this likely was their most mainstream, accessible hit to date. It’s a movie, after all, perhaps the first Golan/Globus Cannon film worthy of the label ‘film’.

So, why is there so little joy watching this movie?

In a way, Death Wish 2 is a strange creature, caught between the grittier, personal film making of the 70s and the burgeoning exploitation, big fireworks umbrella the 80s would make infamous. The grit and realness that Winner deployed in 1974’s Death Wish continues, but it’s countered by the rising silliness of the series (just what the hell is Laurence Fishburne wearing?) that pulls it in increasingly unrealistic directions despite a devotion to realism.

Mixing graphic rape and horrible violence with cartoonish characters devoid of depth or feeling makes for a strange brew. It isn’t a death sentence but it takes a special sort of director to pull it off. Paul Verhoeven was able to navigate this melding in RoboCop through his skill, deftness, and tendency towards satire. It negotiates the round peg entering the square hole. Michael Winner doesn’t seem capable of rectifying these shapes. Either you skew towards the gritty and realistic or you embrace the camp. Trying to have the proverbial cake just doesn’t work in this context.

More importantly, Death Wish 2 brings up an interesting wrinkle in exploitation cinema, maybe any cinema (or art) that engages with loaded topics bracketed by strong emotions. Namely, Death Wish 2 is rapey to a terrifying extent. And it happens so quick in the narrative to where it’s jarring, off putting, and a huge turnoff.

There are three rapes in Death Wish 2. Two are accomplished, one is attempted. There’s also blatant sexual harassment later in the film of the toughs pull up the skirt of the lady at the bus stop. The three rapes feature ample nudity and violence:

  1. Rosaria is beaten, stripped, gang raped, dragged around by the hair, and then murdered when she attempts to phone for help.
  2. Carol is abducted, raped, and then jumps out a window and is impaled on a spiky fence. There’s an element of defiance here considering Carol was also raped in Death Wish but that does little to clean up this scene.
  3. Paul Kersey comes across a couple being accosted in a parking garage and interrupts the attempted rape of a vaguely middle class woman. But, this being Death Wish 2, her breasts are still exposed for the entire sequence, just cuz.

Art provokes and can make us uncomfortable and these scenes are certainly uncomfortable to sit through. But it isn’t the same as a piece of transgressive cinema or biting satire or forceful spoken word. There’s something else going on here. When Death Wish 2 debuted, Michael Winner found himself in hot water with British censors over the violent rape scenes. Censors are rarely correct but film critics also piled on, pointing that the explicitness and the melding of sex and violence crossed a line of taste and aesthetic value. Winner hit back, claiming artistic license and the value of free speech.

So, what’s the value of including such graphic scenes? Maybe better put: does depiction equate to endorsement? Do these graphic scenes of rape constitute some sort of artistic failure, a willingness to cross a line without the provocation art anticipates?

It’s tricky. It’s not dissimilar to the controversy surrounding Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. When her film came out in 2012, the thinkpiece mill cranked. At issue was her depiction of torture on detainees. Though largely discredited as producing actionable or accurate information, torture tactics deployed by the CIA were shown to be effective and the inciting plot point for the film.

Many critics latched onto this depiction, claiming Bigelow endorsed a reprehensible practice through her art by making its efficacy part of the narrative. In a way, by showing torture worked in Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow was making a claim that torture would work elsewhere. Much like Winner, she hit back, claiming artistic license and freedom of expression.

Consider: if depiction equaled endorsement, what’s to be said of George R. R. Martin, or Agatha Christie, or any other writer, photographer, or filmmaker that features murder, suicide, or sexual violence in their work? If objectionable content included in a piece of art had a 1-to-1 equivalency with the persuasions of the author, difficult topics could never be seriously covered unless murderers, rapists, racists, and serial killers were the sole font of beauty.

Of course, that’s a world no one would want to live in. It’s a world hard to conceive. But, then again, all art, beyond aesthetics, technique, intent, is really about choices. It’s about the choice of what to include and, more importantly, what to exclude. It’s about what to emphasize and whether this character does that or if this image is used here or that word is emphasized or this meter is followed. Those choices reflect the work’s potential impact but it also reflects on the personage behind the work.

So, if rape and torture are attributes purposefully chosen, what does that say about the artists behind the works? Narratives, even ones based on true events, are still fictional: recreations that are given meaning and emphasis through the work of the storyteller. That’s a double edged sword because it implies that, yeah, it’s just a story. It isn’t real. Don’t read too much into it. But then, it is a story, and I’ve told it, and I’ve chosen to tell it this way, emphasizing certain aspects and downplaying others.

How does Death Wish 2 factor into this?

While Zero Dark Thirty used depictions of torture as a plot point, there was a narrative justification to it. Accusations Bigelow supported torture because of her film is stupid. Perhaps she’s wrongheaded and could have opted for a different approach but she isn’t Leni Riefenstahl. Torture, in Zero Dark Thirty, netted results, but these results were not presented as glorious or heroic. In the filmic world of that movie, it’s ugly. Visually, the movie is muddy and there’s very little triumphant about it.

American Sniper follows a similar trend (and a similar controversy) in its depictions and presentations of violence. Yes, Iraqis were dehumanized, presented as mindless bodies, but the film itself was about the dehumanizing impact of violence and the constant picking off of people was narratively and artistically justified given the overall aims of director Clint Eastwood. Is it the best vehicle to handle that message? Likely, no. There are grander issues of race, violence, religion, and imperialism that could have been explored. But, is the violence warranted in the context (whatever our feelings on the Iraq War are)? Yes.

Death Wish 2 features scenes of rape that are so unsettling, so graphic that they derail the narrative. Consider, during the two most violent rapes (Rosaria and Carol) Charles Bronson’s character is nowhere near. This is not something viewed through his perspective (unlike Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper’s protagonists, who are present during the most controversial moments). The gaze presented to the audience is only for the audience. This makes these scene exploitative, for our “pleasure” only.

Narratively and aesthetically they color our perceptions but we’re outside the work. If Bronson’s character was tied and bound and saw these events, maybe, just maybe, there would be a justification for their inclusion since it would act as both plot and character beat. As they stand, the rapes are only there to shock and rape should not be a tool solely to shock. It’s implications are too deep, too personal to be incidental.

Even though Death Wish 2 looks like a movie, it feels like a snuff film because so much of the graphic content is centered on the audience, rather than invested in a character. Cannon can be sleazy, dumb, and over the top, but it often has a blind naivete surrounding it, not sinister hoodwinking. Michael Winner falls on the wrong side of the depiction vs. endorsement divide because he failed to understand that violence presented in art, in all of its forms, needs to function within a work, rather than as a sick fantasy.