Winner: Death Wish II (1982)
Opening with a series of sublime, sweeping aerial shots of L.A., in which the camera seems determined to operate with the same balletic dexterity as the highway interchanges unfolding beneath it, the credits of Death Wish 2 make it clear that once again we are going to be treated to the same sensitivity and receptivity to urban space as the original 1974 film. The West Coast location is all the more startling and surprising in that Death Wish ended with Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) arriving in Chicago, after being forced to flee New York once the police discovered that he was the “vigilante” responsible for a spate of mugger assassinations. In the interim, he has made his way to L.A., where he has started dating again for the first time following the rape, assault and murder of his wife in New York, while continuing to care for his daughter, who is still psychologically traumatised by her role in the mugging. It’s only a matter of time, however, before history repeats itself and he comes home one evening to find that his maid has been raped, assaulted and murdered by a gang of muggers who managed to steal his wallet – and so discover his address – at a theme park earlier in the day.
If the first film’s functionality tended towards austerity, then this time around there’s more of a shlocky, exploitative vibe, with a extravagantly dissonant score and dialogue that frequently feels as if it has been shot in separate rooms, or at least in separate takes. Whereas the first film was hushed and muted in its contemplation of the suburban and western horizons that seemed to promise some reprieve from mugging, those horizons are completely vanquished by the time Paul arrives in Los Angeles, which is immediately established by Winner as an exhaustion of both the suburban and western dreams that were so galvanising in the original film. Without a suburban haven or western horizon in sight, Death Wish 2 suggests that mugging has become an inevitable fact of life, inextricable from American urban planning, and that we might as well learn to enjoy it. For that reason, repeating the formula of the Death Wish almost feels like a part of the overall joke, as the sequel comes as close to parody as possible while still allowing Bronson to retain his hard man credentials.
Critical to that sense of absurdity is the fact that mugging in L.A. is a bit of an oxymoron, since mugging is very much a pedestrian phenomenon, at least as the first film presents it. Like contemporary terrorist attacks, mugging often seems to target pedestrians at their most vulnerable, which makes for a bit of a dissonant juxtaposition with Los Angeles, the autocentric city par excellence, especially at this particular moment in American urban history. One of the challenges the film sets itself, then, is to trace out and discover sufficiently extended pedestrian trajectories in L.A. for the mugging panic to feel palpable. Before it even does so, however, it compensates for this more amorphous threat with a more manual, hands-on, balls-to-the-wall approach to vigilantism. In Death Wish, Paul was a sharpshooter, an expert in marksmanship and the harbinger of a new brand of urban western, as the film continually carved out great vistas of space and time around his passage through the city. This time, he feels like more of a mugger himself, punching and roughing up his targets before he shoots them or – in some cases – instead of shooting them. Indeed, L.A. muggers often seem so elusive that Paul needs to grasp them with his hands to know they really exist, in what often feels like a strategy for seizing hold of the wider city as well.
Concomitantly, whereas the first film variously framed vigilantism in terms of citizens’ arrest, conscientious objection and the “old-fashioned social custom of self-defence,” in Death Wish 2 those mantras all converge on neighborhood watch, which was just starting to become a major part of the L.A. landscape around this time. Now that the franchise has finally arrived at suburbia, and the fears of the first film – that muggers will one day simply saunter into the family home – have come to pass, vigilantism is less about defending oneself on the street and more about defending hearth and home; after all, the victim this time around is not Paul’s girlfriend but his maid. Indeed, it often feels as if Paul’s vigilante persona has more or less transformed into that of a classical action hero – he’s an entirely different character – just as there’s less of an effort to conceal the franchise’s racist agenda. It’s no coincidence that the central criminal gang are all African-American and Hispanic, with the exception of a single white perpetrator who is almost albino – none of the criminals that we see possess the right degree of whiteness, and in fact it is the quasi-albino character who proves to be the most virulent, presumably because he has betrayed a whiteness that the other criminals never possessed in the first place.
At the same time, mugging is no longer presented as a solitary activity any more, but is intimately bound up with the escalating panic concerning gang warfare in Los Angeles, and South Central Los Angeles in particular. While the first film was set in motion by a gang assault, every subsequent mugging was committed by a solitary perpetrator, with the gang featured less as a regular feature of urban life than a harbinger of the superhuman, science-fictional ability that a new generation of criminals possessed to collectively read the city. While it hung around the fringes of Death Wish as a kind of horrifying potentiality, here is has simply become part and parcel of everyday life, which is perhaps why Death Wish 2 has a more robust horror vibe as well. Just as the individual mugger corresponded to the isolated Manhattan alleys and winding Central Park walkways of the original film, so gangs are here presented as the only option for composing and conducting criminality in such a dispersed and diffuse urban structure. As a result, there is more of a sense of criminal invasion than in the first film, but also a peculiar and pointed fear of African-Americans, who are framed with such paranoia that the sheer act of an African-American man looking at a white woman – let alone having physical relations with a white woman – is presented as scarier than any discrete or isolated criminal act. As the central African-American gang member, Laurence Fishburne puts in one of the first instances of his trademark charismatic intensity, although it also feels like a performance that is crying out and yearning for his role in Boyz N The Hood as a corrective and counterpoint.
Of course, that diffuse threat is exacerbated by the way the film treats Los Angeles itself, as the diffused public-private thresholds of the first film – especially that ominous supermarket where it all began – simply become the premise of urban space this time around. Watching the sequel actually made me realise that while the original film longed for suburbia it was also driven by a deeper fear of New York becoming too suburban, or devolving into Los Angles, just as Paul’s suburban dreams often seemed delivered by way of nascent suburban horror tropes. More than a longing for suburbia, the original film yearned for a clear demarcation between suburbia and the urban core, and the complete absence of that dividing line in L.A. is just one of the reasons why the film feels like a home invasion drama playing out at the scale of an entire city.
At the same time, however, L.A. is quite difficult to conceptualise as a city, and Winner opts to leave behind such iconic spaces as Downtown, Hollywood or Century City to instead dwell on the weird, drifting spaces around bus interchanges and on buses themselves, zones that combine fluidity and stasis to evoke a public sphere that is always almost about to come into visibility. In fact, it is only the existence, presence and virulence of muggers in the first place that seems to indicate that we have arrived at something resembling a public sphere, as Winner unfolds a series of beautiful tracking and trailing sequences – of muggers by Paul, and of Paul himself by the police – that can’t last on foot for any great length of time without hopping on or off a bus or jumping in and out of a taxi. In the process, the film beautifully evokes the interstitial spaces and connective tissues of L.A., although there is always a residual sense of fantasy in the sense that these spaces can be approached in this linear manner. To take just one example, taxis are always immediately available when Winner needs to maintain continuity between pedestrian segments, a situation that might be plausible in Downtown Manhattan but is utterly fantastic here. Nevertheless, that fantasy also draws out the hallucinatory undertones of the city as well, as Winner and Paul look for muggers at the point where crowds disperse and dissipate – their typical dwelling-place in New York – only to discover that crowds don’t exist at all in this city, at least not in a conventional sense.
What is so unusual about Death Wish 2, then, is that muggers and gang members almost come to stand in for the public sphere that they were supposedly destroying in the original film. Not only does that explain why the film is so comfortable with Paul himself becoming a mugger – he’s simply the right kind of mugger – but it also explains why Los Angeles manages to retain the pastoral, utopian aspirations of the opening film despite exhibiting even more distressing signs of mugging culture. Although there are moments at which it feels as if we are witnessing something like a retreat from L.A. to another pastoral horizon – Acapulco replaces Hawaii, the Hollywood Hills replace Tucson – the city feels so sprawling and amorphous that it effectively contains and internalises every utopian alternative to its own criminal problems. Whereas virtually every mugging incident in the first film took place at night – to the point where daylight became synonymous with both suburbia and western expansion – most of Death Wish 2 is drenched in the SoCal sun, in a striking testament to Los Angeles’ capacity to absorb every dystopian and utopian alternative to itself.
As might be expected, that tends to complicate the genre affiliations of the first film as well. While there is still a western element at play, it owes more to Sam Peckinpah and exploitation aesthetics than to the stately sightlines of “Old Tucson” in the first film, with group standoffs and shootouts tending to replace the deep-focus sightlines of parks and subway stations, neither of which seem to exist in Winner’s version of Los Angeles. Similarly, Paul doesn’t really have a superhero identity as he does in the first film – that wouldn’t quite work in a city like L.A. – although there is a sense that the criminals have superpowers, thanks in part to the emergence of PCP, which provides the central, whiter-than-white mugger with the capacity to handle ten police at a time but also with an addictive history that allows him to seek refuge in a psychiatric institute instead of being sent to prison. By that point, his albinism has morphed into something more like white supremacy, and so it’s only a matter of time before Paul has to calibrate himself against him, breaking into the psychiatric hospital where he is housed and fighting him to the death. If the first film amped up the hysteria with its final shot, then this last scene prepares us for an even more hyperbolic third film, as Paul, “all done with kindness now,” embarks upon an anti-therapeutic rampage, fuelled by an extravagantly paranoid vision of psychiatric help as rest and retreat. It’s the perfection conclusion to a film that is so anxious about the distinctions between inside and outside, setting up Death Wish 3 as a kind of antidote to PCP, a hallucinatory drug that somehow promotes social responsibility, while arming the user with just as much adrenaline and potential for action in the process.
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