The Death Wish movies have a lot to answer for. Brian Garfield, author of the original novel, was aghast at the extent to which the original 1974 movie seemed to endorse the sort of vigilantism his story was intended to criticise. Revisiting it later, it’s at best a movie in two minds as to whether the sort of campaign of premeditated killing on the part of Charles Bronson’s revenge-obsessed protagonist is justified.
The sequels, though… the sequels were made in the 1980s; a brighter era, an era of more simplistic moral messages, altogether a more Reagan-y era than 1974. They are vastly less ambiguous than the original; they embrace vigilantism as a 100% perfectly OK thing and are only too glad to depict Bronson slaying absurd numbers of criminals – and if those criminals happen to tend to be of particular ethnicities, all the better.
The series was much-imitated at the time, but in the long gap between 1974’s Death Wish and 1982’s Death Wish II you could see the cultural shift that made Death Wish II a viable commercial prospect happening in the public’s appetite for material like 1980’s The Exterminator, which is basically Death Wish with a flamethrower-touting Vietnam veteran protagonist for an extra dose of uncomfortable badassery.
The movie opens with a ridiculously over-the-top segment depicting protagonist John Eastland (Robert Ginty) during his service in Vietnam. This establishes two important things:
- US tactics in Vietnam mostly consisted of frontal infantry assaults on Communist-aligned active volcanoes.
- US infantrymen have necks the consistency of hard cheese, with no bones therein whatsoever.
Anyway, Eastland and his Michael Jefferson (Steve James) get home from Vietnam after Jefferson saves Eastland’s life several times over and take up civilian life in New York. Some time afterwards, the duo have a run-in with members of the Ghetto Ghouls gang, leading to an altercation in which Jefferson knocks some of them out. In a retaliation attack, Jefferson is beaten bloody and left paralysed for life by vengeful Ghouls. This prompts Eastland to get together some of his army surplus kit – including an honest to God flamethrower – and go on a vigilante killing spree – but can he last long without Jefferson to constantly save his ass?
Writer-director James Glickenhaus seems to have tasked himself here with churning out a riff on Death Wish with all of the nuance, subtlety, character development and realism removed in favour of utter absurdity. Take, for instance, the Ghetto Ghouls: the gang members seem to be portrayed as being generically “ethnic”, but nobody seems to have briefed them or the costume department on precisely which ethnicity they are supposed to aim for, so they just look like they’ve been playing dress-up on a budget.
In terms of pacing, it’s kind of hilarious how the film goes in a single fade from “Eastland breaking the news about Jefferson being mugged to Jefferson’s wife” to “Eastland interrogating a captured Ghetto Ghoul with a flamethrower”, without a shred of “Eastland resolves to take revenge” or “Eastland tries to take the high road but eventually snaps under the continued provocations of the gang” or any of the other plot points that conventional wisdom might suggest you’re obliged to put into a film before you have the protagonist go apeshit with an assault rifle.
With his slightly doughy features and drab hair – like an early-1980s David Cameron in need of a haircut – Eastland doesn’t exactly exude the same level of menace that Charles Bronson did in Death Wish, so I guess covering up his face with a motorcycle helmet was a sound directoral choice at that, even though it makes him look even more threatening and makes the fact that we’re clearly meant to be rooting for him even more uncomfortable.
Actually, the thing which makes me cheer for Eastland for most isn’t his attire or his choice of targets; it’s the fact that at least when he comes onscreen, stuff is actually going to happen in the movie. For a film with this premise and the level of violence it depicts, it’s bizarrely slow at points. There’s several stretches of the movie where you just get a bunch of slice-of-life stuff following various gangsters or the detective who’s trying to figure out who the Exterminator is (Christopher George) than actual stuff following Eastland closely at times.
This results in a weird atmosphere in which you have this mildly comedic light drama mixed in with world-weary grittiness mixed in with outbursts of excessive violence. Still, because Glickenhaus has no subtlety you’re never confused as to how you are supposed to feel about particular characters; for instance, there’s the CIA dudes whose meetings are punctuated by OMINOUS MUSIC every time anyone delivers a line, who I guess we are meant to understand as being evil.
For the most part, though, this is a movie for people who get off on violence and threats of violence being used against criminals. Some of the bits here would become Glickenhaus staples; he does an early rendition here of the “gangster dangled over perilous drop” bit he’d later use in the clumsy Chistopher Walken vehicle McBain.
That said, some sequences are so intensely exploitative that it’s impossible to enjoy them even on the level of brainless action movie fare. There’s a bit where a prostitute (who is implied to be underage, due to her john being referred to as a chickenhawk and all) gets branded by a customer as her pimp looks on approvingly, which does nothing for the plot whatsoever beyond going way above and beyond the call of duty in persuading us that we want to see the Exterminator kill these people.
If that didn’t make you feel miserable and defiled enough by the sheer act of witnessing it, don’t worry – Glickenhaus will make your soul feel stained sooner or later. Perhaps your breaking point will be the shot of a dead abuser, blood still slowly trickling out of the back of his boxer shorts in a suggestive manner – or perhaps, like me, you’ll find your stomach turned by the bit where the guy who pimps out kids is being killed and one of the pictures on his wall is clearly being pixellated out, implying that they used actual child porn as set dressing in the movie. Urgh.