When talk turns to sequels equal to or arguably better than its predecessor, two titles guaranteed to be popping off the top of noggins are going to be THE GODFATHER PART II and ALIENS. Both movies are undoubtably mint and when it comes to these exclusive Part Twos, no one can argue Coppola and Cameron’s creations sit at the head of the table.
DEATH WISH II is worthy of a seat at said table. Not just a spot among the sequels equal to their original. Best believe Bronson’s return to his most iconic character locks it down on the “better than its predecessor” side.
What makes DWII so great just happens to be all of the things the critics were bitching about. No big surprise there. With the bare bones plot from the first foray into vigilantism, the sequel needed to go bigger and bloodier. Basically, it had to go full Bronson.
Welcome to the jungle
One thing can be said for certain about this solid sequel: it sure wasn’t done as some hasty cash grab. In fact, out of all the big blockbuster movies from the ’70’s that had jumped on the bandwagon for Part Twosville, DWII was the only title not to have done so.
Most of the freshly born franchises had produced a sequel within an average of three years between movies. By the time Paul Kersey returned to the screen in 1982 – a full eight years after 1974’s original – both JAWS and ROCKY sequels had been produced. SMOKEY & THE BANDIT had one done, too. Heck, all three OMEN movies had come and gone. Yet how many of those sequels match its maker or best it? That answer is a goose egg. Zip. Zilch. None.
The second DEATH WISH succeeds in checking all the right boxes for a sequel that doesn’t suck. By doing so, it’s a movie that should be considered an example for all budding franchises to follow when stepping up for round two. That means keeping the old that’s gold and the taking it to a truly new level.
And it all starts with Bronson.
CHARLES AT LARGE
When Cannon Films scored the rights to the Death Wish concept off legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, it was to attach the title’s brand recognition to their own revenge script. The plan was for Cannon exec/megla-schlock producer Menahem Golan to direct. Just as there’s no shake without the bake, there’s no Death Wish without Charles Bronson.
Charles Bronson wouldn’t sign on to reprise Paul Kersey unless original director Michael Winner was on board. It’s arguably the best way of bringing any sequel to the screen. The movies that do keep the star/director team intact tend to be the more solid entries. Just ask BACK TO THE FUTURE II or THE ROAD WARRIOR.
Another way DWII avoids the pitfall of “been-there-done-thatitus” known to plague plenty of part two movies was wisely changing the location. Death Wish ended with Paul Kersey essentially being run out of New York. The last we see of the vigilante, he’s in Chicago’s Union Square train station target practicing punks. Changing locations to Los Angeles perfectly presents the cityscape as a character itself.
know when to hold ’em
Another essential to keep a sequel from sucking is having a holdover from the first flick. The holdover can be either a supporting character or consequence to serve as a link between the two movies. DWII utilizes this device far better than most sequels. It does so by bringing back a minor character in a major way.
Character actor Vincent Gardenia returns to the role of NYPD Detective Frank Ochoa, the manifestation of consequences to Paul Kersey’s body count in New York. Gardenia doesn’t lend his curmudgeonly mug merely for the sake of a touch-base cameo.
The character comes equipped with a clever cat-and-mouse subplot: when Ochoa gets wind of the LAPD’s vigilante problem, he’s certain it’s the work of Paul Kersey. The detective goes west under the guise of assisting his brothers in blue to apprehend the vigilante. However, the real reason for Ochoa’s trip is concern Kersey will be snared in the LAPD dragnet and will spill beans on how the NYPD let him skate nine murder charges.
The corrupt cop hunts anti-hero hunting bad guys idea gives an added element missing from Kersey’s east coast kill count. While he was sought after by the NYPD as a vigilante on the loose, Kersey remained anonymous. By bringing back Ochoa in this manner, the movie’s makers effectively raise the stakes.
here we go again… again
Golan-Globus were a producing team smart enough to know the formula for franchise success is not straying far from what brought butts to the theater seats the first go round. For the Death Wish movies it means trafficking in the currency of violence and sexual assault as pivoting plot points putting Paul Kersey in the mood for blood. This being a part two, there’s a doubling down on depravity.
Since Paul Kersey’s wife died in the first movie, that just leaves his daughter to be victimized. Screenwriter David Englebach spares Carol Kersey the brunt of another violent rape by introducing middle-aged housekeeper Rosario. Considering everyone in Paul Kersey’s orbit tends not to fare well in these pictures, it’s pretty obvious Rosario isn’t going to make it past the first act. For that matter, neither does Carol.
Director Michael Winner however does not spare the audience when it comes to depicting the brutal gang rape Rosario receives resulting from a daylight home invasion (apparently the criminal calling card in the Death Wish movies). When DWII was released in the UK, Winner was taken to task for the scene, rightfully so.
There’s always been a certain level of atrocity required for villains to commit in the revenge genre. The unspoken logic being the more heinous the trespass, the more a villain will be despised. It gives the guiltless catharsis of delighting in a villain’s deserving demise. Audiences can bet they’ll get their money’s worth when it’s Charles Bronson out for some payback. He’ll be cashing checks and snapping necks. By that I mean shooting and electrocuting the bad guys.
DEAD MEN WALKING
The best element in DWII happens to be the same thing critics bemoaned about throughout their reviews in the wake of the movie’s theatrical release.
In Paul Kersey’s first foray, he maximized his kill count by shooting any unlucky thug randomly crossing his path. He never gets to exact revenge on the creeps responsible for killing his wife and raping his daughter. It basically makes Death Wish the ROCKY of the revenge genre.
For the sequel, Kersey’s quest takes the direct revenge route rather than random vigilantism, establishing the more personal plight of the plot and further reinforces it by the inclusion of the aforementioned Ochoa as an adversary from Paul’s past. Simply switching to the west coast just to have Bronson blasting his way through another round of scumbag happenstance would’ve smacked of a lazy cash grab. Putting personality to the crew who lit Kersey’s fuse was the smart move.
These five bad guys – a loose knit crew of ebony and ivory with some serious bad habits – are the best in the franchise. They’re basically sharks, seeking to destroy. Only when it comes to Kersey, they bite off more than they can collectively chew.
Just as its predecessor brought a fresh face to the screen via a very creepy Jeff Goldblum effectively playing a Jughead hat wearing weirdo and part of the trio who assault Kersey’s wife and daughter, DWII keeps the casting tradition by bringing Lawrence Fishburne to the table. Billed as Lawrence Fishburne III, he exponentially raises the creep factor as the aptly naked Cutter. Relishing in committing crime with his high-pitched hyena cackle, he makes Cutter easily the most skeezy of the gang and that’s no short order compared to his criminal cohorts Punkcut, Jiver, Stomper, and de facto leader named Nirvana.
As drug addled and reprehensible as they are, no one can accuse the crew of a poor work ethic or complete unprofessionalism as seen here:
get the led Out
Last, but by no means least and what really puts the sequel past its predecessor is the soundtrack.
Producers Golum and Globus originally wanted Issac Hayes. Instead, director Michael Winner wanted to give the musical duties to his neighbor. Turned out, hisneighbor was a nice English fellow: Jimmy Page, rock-n-roll living legend and guitar god from a little band by the name of Led Zeppelin.
Winner had been Page’s neighbor for years at this point. He was aware of how bad of a time it was for the man musically inactive and adrift without his band following the death of its drummer John Bonham. Winner brought the project to the reclusive Page with the help of Peter Grant, former manager of the defunct Zeppelin. After screening the movie’s rough cut at Winner’s home, Page accepted the deadline of just a few weeks to write and record the music.
Winner and the movie were rewarded with a killer (pun very intended) soundtrack. Inspired by the gritty Los Angeles locations, Page concocted grimy and groovy blues based music using a guitar synthesizer on tracks. It’s unlike anything Page has ever made, yet suits the movie beautifully. Winner was thrilled with Page’s work by remarking, “I’ve never seen a more professional score in my life.”
There’s no better example of how Page’s music meets the movie in a moment of pure perfection than when Paul Kersey is stalking the last three surviving members of the gang. The guitar god delivers a scuzzy funk fused groove as Kersey moves among the dirty denizen of downtown L.A. It leads to one of the funniest images ever put on screen in the Death Wish franchise.
When Kersey spots Punkcut, Cutter, and Nirvana in a city square where they’re doing the most unexpected activity… they’re dancing. That’s right. Dancing. As Jimmy Page’s guitar grooves from Cutter’s boom box, we witness the least villainous thing thugs can do in a revenge movie. As Kersey observes the trio’s carefree prancing dancing, they look like dance movement students straight out of the movie FAME. Only these crude dudes aren’t going to be living forever.
It’s a moment responsible for inspiring Takedown’s in-house movie/music mashup maestro Olivus Stoney to whip this clip up in the lab for your enjoyment.