As soon as the film begins and the score kicks in, Death Wish II earns a special place in my heart. While the tense and jazzy score of the first movie was provided by musician Herbie Hancock, Hancock was replaced as composer on this one by a different musician – not Isaac Hayes, as producers Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus wanted, but the man who was at the time returning director Michael Winner’s next door neighbor: Jimmy Page, who had just recently ended his days as guitarist and songwriter for the greatest rock band of all time, Led Zeppelin.
Music that is unmistakably Page plays over the title sequence, which consists of shots of the city formerly New York-based Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson reprising his star-making role) now resides in. Los Angeles.
Although this sequel was made eight years after its predecessor, only two years have passed for the characters. Crime rates of all sorts are up over 50% in L.A., but Kersey pays it no mind. His days of being a vigilante are over. His focus is again on his career as an architect, and his latest project is the design of a new radio station for KABC, a job which has introduced him to his new lady love, Geri Nichols of KABC News.
Charles Bronson had a habit of recommending his wife Jill Ireland for acting roles in his movies, she was in nearly twenty of them and Winner had fully expected his star to request that she play his wife in the first movie. But Bronson didn’t want Ireland to have to act in the scene where Kersey’s wife was beaten to death by muggers, so Hope Lange was cast instead. Since his character has a love interest who is not treated horribly in the sequel, Jill Ireland made it into part 2 as Geri Nichols.
Things are looking up for Paul Kersey. He’s got a good job, a girlfriend, a nice place that’s taken care of by his maid Rosario, and even though his daughter Carol is still in a catatonic state from being sexually assaulted two years earlier, in recent weeks she has finally started speaking again, a few words here and there.
And then, it all comes crashing back down.
During a day out at a fair, Kersey has his wallet stolen by a gang of five punks with colorful nicknames – Jiver, Cutter, Punkcut, Stomper, and Nirvana. Kersey chases Jiver down into a dead end alley, fisticuffs are engaged in, and Kersey manages to best Jiver in their scuffle. But Jiver isn’t the one with his wallet, so all their fight accomplishes is to hurt Jiver’s pride.
Jiver is so upset that he and his gang get Kersey’s address from his driver’s license, go over to his house and lie in wait for him. And while they’re waiting, they assault Rosario. When Kersey and Carol get home, Rosario is killed, Kersey is knocked out, and Carol is kidnapped.
In Die Hard 2, John McClane pondered how the same thing could happen to the same person twice. Paul Kersey must certainly be asking that same question as Death Wish II plays out, and it’s Carol Kersey who bears the brunt of this horrific recurrence in their lives. Assaulted again while being kept in the gang’s hideout, she chooses a fatal escape over dealing with this nightmare again.
In the first movie, Kersey was unable to take direct revenge on the criminals who attacked his wife and daughter. He took his rage out on crime in general. This time, he has seen the perpetrators with his own eyes, he knows exactly who he’s after, and so to avenge his daughter he hits the streets of L.A. and goes hunting for Jiver and his gang. Now that he has specific targets, he passes by the other criminals on the streets, killing only the gang members and their associates. Even some of the associates he tells to run off.
Word of the vigilante in L.A. reaches back to New York, where authorities knew Kersey was their vigilante but let him go because his actions had successfully caused crime rates to drop and he had the public’s support. But if Kersey is caught in L.A. and authorities there find out that New York just gave him a pass, it’s not going to look good for the NYPD or the higher ups, so Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia), the man who had been tasked with telling Kersey to get out of town, has to go out to L.A. and try to get to Kersey before the LAPD does.
As far as sequels go, Death Wish II falls in the decent category. The cast, which includes a young Laurence Fishburne and a welcome cameo by John Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers in addition to those already mentioned, is great, with Bronson again delivering a strong performance as Paul Kersey. The shoot ’em up action is fun and well directed by Michael Winner. The score by Jimmy Page is, of course, awesome.
The slightly questionable element here, the thing which holds the film back from rising above decent, is the screenplay by David Engelbach, whose most notable credit other than this is as story writer on Sylvester Stallone’s Over the Top. While Engelbach does a good enough job following up on the characters and ideas established in the original movie, I’m left with the feeling there could have been a better approach taken to part 2. The assault on Rosario and Carol is too similar to what happened before, in fact having the same thing happen to Carol all over again is very bothersome. Getting Kersey back into the vigilante game didn’t require that. There aren’t really any fresh ideas here, it’s just an excuse to show the audience more scenes of Paul Kersey shooting criminals.
Watching Kersey dispatch these guys is certainly entertaining and it’s what everyone who checks out the movie wants to see, but they could have surrounded the action with a better story instead of just copying the first movie.
So with that said, in the end, would I recommend Death Wish II? Of course. Paul Kersey kills bad guys in it.