Home Video Hovel- Death Wish 2, by Aaron Pinkston
Death Wish isn’t the type of film that is begging for a sequel. For those of you who don’t know the original film, Paul Kersey (played beautifully by Charles Bronson) is a well-to-do architect living with his wife, daughter and new son-in-law in New York City. As this was pre-NYC-clean up, half the population is a drugged-out, desperate freaks. After Kersey’s wife and daughter are attacked and his wife is killed by kicked to the stomach, Kersey goes on a vigilante rager, cleaning the city one thug at a time. Since the film uses the trope of a straight-laced man forced to lose control on account of a tragedy, there doesn’t seem like there is much emotional ground to cover in various sequels. I mean, how many personal tragedies can one may go through? Well, as there are five of these things, I guess quite a few. To be fair, even the first film has Kersey held up and attacked by random strangers over and over and over again, allowing him at least two kills in each scene.
As for the first of the sequels now available on Blu-Ray (strangely, no release has been made of the classic opener), Death Wish II (aka, Death Wish 2, as emblazoned on the Blu-Ray cover) opens with Kersey relocated in Los Angeles — trading in the glum metropolis of New York for the sunshine and quaintness of southern California. Still, we’re told through news footage-styled voice-over narration that crime statistics are climbing, even if Kersey’s new life seems pretty dull yet effortlessly enjoyable.
One thing will never change for Kersey: random street thugs are endlessly magnetized to him (in all seriousness, it would do these nameless-faceless gangs big to do a bit of prep work as just stay away from Kersey). As is typical of an action franchise, though, what started as a gritty noir has been cranked up. His first encounter with a switchblade-equipped baddie involves a choreographed fight sequence — something Bronson can’t pull off quite as well as the brooding gun-slinger. The mustachioed lead may be a legitimate action star, but you’d never mistake him with Jean-Claude Van Damme, even though the film tries to slip this past you at times. Did the once mild-mannered liberal architect take street fighting lessons between films?
I speculated in the opening paragraph how many bad things can happen to one guy, and that question is partly responsible for the complete superfluity of Death Wish II. I never really want to spend so much time reviewing a film solely in comparison with the first of its franchise, but Death Wish II seems to be begging you to compare the two. At the very least, it is trying to catch the audience by giving it the same formula — as if to completely fulfill the cynical stance that sequels only are in it to copy what was successful and make a bunch of money. While the major tragedy near the beginning of Death Wish II is still incredibly harrowing and appropriately violent, even while cranking it up with five thugs instead of three, it plays too similar to the first film’s catalyst — even with the sheer coincidence of a gang member being played by a future star; this time a pimped-out Larry Fishburne takes over for an overly squirrely Jeff Goldblum. Seeing Kersey mourn the loss of his daughter shouldn’t feel any less impactful than the loss of his wife, but this is practically inevitable. From there, we all know where the film is basically going, which, OK, is not entirely bad given that we see Charles Bronson kick some serious ass.
Narratively, the only real difference between Death Wish and this sequel is that Kersey is out for specific vengeance, searching for and taking out the hoodlums responsible for his loss, one by one. In the original, he seems more interested in being a general crusader than an avenger of his dead wife. Strangely, Death Wish never comes back to a showdown with the film’s most important thugs — something every other similarly plotted film always ends with. Don’t expect it to be any sort of treatise on the consequences of revenge, though, because that’s not what this film is. I’ll commend the film, though, for not pussy-footing around the fact that it would be pretty easy to connect the dots in figuring out that Kersey is again on a murder spree sparked by the rape and slaying of a family member. The film could have wasted a lot of time with a similar crime investigation, but it diverges here. It’s a little less “who is committing these ‘crimes’?” and a little more “should we allow this vigilante the freedom to kill in the name of social betterment?”
If it reads like it, I don’t meant to suggest I flat-out hated Death Wish II. Sure, it is painfully unimaginative and nowhere close to the bar set by its predecessor, but it succeeds on the terms of what it is: a low-grade potboiler. You’ll get a few thrills and the always entertaining Charles Bronson in his iconic role, so that is probably enough for most. I’ll just beg and pray that the following two sequels try to mix things up, even just a bit.