Death Wish II arrived eight years after 1974's Death Wish (a smash-hit which apparently reduced the crime rate in New York City during its theatrical run!), and this sequel was clearly green-lit for the sole purpose of cashing in on the success of its predecessor. This is fundamentally a shameless rehash of the original Death Wish that's packed with gratuitous violence and rape. Where the first film presented Charles Bronson's character of Paul Kersey as a victim of violence pushed to breaking point, this follow-up finds Paul in John Rambo territory - he has become an apathetic iconoclast bent on revenge. The underlying moral debate of the first film has vanished, and has been replaced with unhealthy blood-lust. The product is a serviceable actioner that most audiences will find unbearably repugnant.
This follow-up is a complete break from the Brian Garfield novel series on which the original film is based. Garfield's second novel (entitled Death Sentence) was unused in the creation of this sequel, but was eventually adapted for the screen in 2007 (directed by Saw creator James Wan).
In what is essentially Death Wish revisited, we find Paul Kersey (Bronson) who's turned loose on the creeps of Los Angeles. The health of his catatonic daughter Carol (Sherwood) is improving, but tranquillity in the family was not destined to be long-lived. Five street punks (one of which is a young Laurence Fishburne) break into Paul's home and assault everyone in sight, resulting in the death of both his daughter and housekeeper. Paul, shaken up and deeply pissed off about the event, plots revenge and begins to methodically hunt down each of the five thugs.
Where Death Wish persuaded a viewer to support the protagonist's crusade, this support is taken for granted here. Unlike its predecessor, Death Wish II spends no time watching Paul contemplate his actions before turning to vigilantism - he simply goes to work, rendering himself a stoic killing machine. The punks are unimaginative and soulless caricatures, conceived for the purpose of showing how awful the underbelly of society truly is. The portrayal of street crime is so one-dimensional it practically borders on parody. There are literally thugs on every street block, and they're all unmistakable due to how they dress. While admittedly entertaining, Death Wish II is desperately underwritten and underplotted, alternating between violent action, gratuitous rape scenes and banal dialogue passages.
At the tip of the iceberg, the story of Death Wish II has little credibility - the chances are slim to none that Paul Kersey would suffer two such horrendous experiences during the course of a few years. Credibility is further disregarded during the first ten minutes when a visibly aged Charles Bronson is portrayed as an adept hand-to-hand combat fighter even while battling more agile opponents. One sequence even shows Paul winning a fight with a thug who easily fought off a dozen cops just a few scenes earlier. It's just ridiculous. Death Wish II has no intention of pursuing the interesting themes of its forerunner. Michael Winner dedicates this film to an audience hungry for exploitation.
Director Winner does stage a number of exciting shootouts, however, though the film as a whole sorely lacks both artistry and style. The pace for this tight 90-minute flick is incredibly brisk, but that comes at the expense of interesting characterisations. On top of all this, former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page (who was Winner's neighbour in the '80s) provides an adequate score.
All things considered, Death Wish II is enjoyable but thoroughly disappointing, and it was made purely for box office returns. It's routine, lazy and silly. A bunch of entertaining action sequences provides the only reason to watch this sequel. Those who seek more weight and/or gravitas with their action films, however, should avoid this empty-headed actioner at all costs.
Followed by Death Wish 3.