Release Date(s)1982 (May 31, 2022)
Studio(s)Filmways Pictures (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: C-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
Michael Winner’s Death Wish II was a belated sequel to his controversial 1974 vigilante film, released eight years down the road, after the rights had jumped from Dino De Laurentiis to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of Cannon Films (an arguable “out of the frying pan, into the fire” situation). The world had changed during those eight years, offering plenty of opportunity for reflection, but Golan/Globus weren’t particularly interested in anything like that that. Yet it’s the lack of reflection in Death Wish II that remains one of its most interesting qualities—it’s a film that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the passage of time.
Contrary to popular opinion, the movie business doesn’t really set trends, as much as it reacts to them. It’s a business, after all, so following the popular zeitgeist is often the clear path to making money. That’s especially noticeable in franchise filmmaking, where there can be some significant cultural shifts over time. For example, when Dirty Harry was released in 1971, it was in reaction to the expansion of civil liberties under the Warren Court, as well as popular fears that the increased rights for the accused were handcuffing the ability of the police to deal with criminals. Right or wrong, Dirty Harry was criticized for having a fascist point of view, so when the follow-up Magnum Force was released two years later, rogue cops were now the villains. A reactionary film got an equally reactionary sequel, and further sequels continued to explore different concepts that were in sync with the popular culture of the times.
Like Dirty Harry, the original Death Wish had been accused of condoning vigilantism, so with eight years to contemplate the subject, Death Wish II had plenty of opportunity to respond—and respond it did, though not in an expected fashion. Death Wish II is indeed reactionary, but Winner’s reaction was to double down on everything in the first film that had offended people. It’s a giant middle finger to critics of Death Wish, offering more of the same, only more so. David Engelbach’s script had tried to find some nuance in getting Paul Kersey back behind the trigger, but Winner rewrote it heavily, eliminating the nuance, and maximizing the sleaze. Engelbach didn’t include any rape scenes, so Winner added not one, not two, but three. Not only that, but when one character is gang-raped early in the film, Winner methodically took the time to show each and every rapist taking his turn, one after the other. Another character isn’t merely raped, but she’s also killed afterward in a manner that wouldn’t have looked out of place in The Omen. Death Wish II isn’t merely an ugly film; it’s ugly by design—a feature, not a bug.
Death Wish was never intended to launch a franchise, but Death Wish II ended up laying the groundwork for three more installments featuring Charles Bronson, the last of which was released in 1994. While the later films leaned more heavily into the absurdity of Paul Kersey’s continued vigilantism, openly embracing the cartoonish nature of the situation, Death Wish II occupies an awkward median between that kind of wretched excess, and the more grounded tone of the original film. It’s still preposterous, but its preposterousness is treated quite earnestly. Needless to say, that means that Death Wish II will not be for all tastes. It’s too ludicrous to be taken seriously, but it’s also too serious to be enjoyed merely as mindless entertainment. Yet it’s the film that Winner wanted to make, and so it remains a fascinating example what can happen when a filmmaker no longer cares what anyone thinks.
Cinematographers Thomas del Ruth and Richard H. Kline shot Death Wish II on 35 mm film using Arriflex cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Vinegar Syndrome’s Ultra HD version utilizes a 4K scan of the original uncut camera negative, which was cleaned up and then graded for HDR (only HDR10 is included on the disc). The image is beautifully detailed and nearly spotless, with fairly even grain throughout, and little in the way of compression artifacts. The HDR grade improves the contrast range, with deep blacks and more vivid highlights, especially during some of the night scenes featuring the glittering lights of the city. The colors are more saturated than they are on Blu-ray, but not excessively so. It’s a very pretty presentation of an inherently grotesque film.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. It’s fairly robust for a mono track, with clear dialogue and some heft to the sound effects. The ostentatious score was written by Jimmy Page, whose only feature film scoring credits include this one and the sequel Death Wish 3. It’s... well, it’s interesting, to put it politely, but it sounds as good as it can here.
Vinegar Syndrome’s Ultra HD release of Death Wish II is a 2-disc set that includes a Blu-ray copy of the film. Aside from the commentary track, all of the extras are confined to the Blu-ray, in order to maximize the bit rate for the UHD. The insert is reversible, with artwork on each side inspired by different posters used for Death Wish II’s original theatrical release. There’s also an embossed slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 5,000 units, which was designed by Robert Sammelin. The following extras are included, all in HD:
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary with Paul Talbot
DISC TWO: BD
- Audio Commentary with Paul Talbot
- Alternate TV Version of Death Wish II (95:31)
- Pass (5:28)
- Working with Bronson (7:24)
- Dark Parts (8:10)
- Fights in the Theater (7:19)
- Theatrical Trailer (1:57)
The commentary is by Paul Talbot, author of Bronson’s Loose! and Bronson’s Loose Again!. Needless to say, he’s a big fan of the Death Wish franchise, and it shows. He’s a fountain of information regarding the making of the film, including its background, writing, production, and release, as well as details about all of the actors and many of the crew who were involved. Talbot notes that in addition to doing an uncredited rewrite, Winner co-edited the film under his pseudonym Arnold Crust, and he acted as an uncredited on-set producer as well, so Death Wish II truly was a Michael Winner film. Talbot also offers an explanation for why there are two credited cinematographers for the film: the original DP, Thomas Del Ruth, quit in protest over the way that Winner was shooting the first rape scene. Talbot covers the differences between the R-rated and uncut versions of the film (which unsurprisingly comes down to rape), and notes scenes that were shot but not included in either version. Apparently, they were included on a Greek VHS version, but haven’t been seen anywhere else since then. Talbot also spends some time on the reviews from 1982, which weren’t exactly charitable. It’s an interesting commentary track that won’t necessarily redeem Death Wish II for those who have already dismissed it, but it’s always valuable to hear a defense of any film, good, bad, or ugly.
The alternate TV version of Death Wish II is presented here for the first time in HD, taken from a 2K scan of a 35 mm interpositive. It’s framed at 1.85:1, even though the original television broadcasts would have been shown open matte at 1.33:1. Like many vintage television edits, dialogue was changed, alternate footage was used to replace objectionable material, and extra footage was added to compensate for the number of cuts that had to be made. As a result, this version runs over three minutes longer than the unrated cut, and it contains approximately nine minutes of material not included in either the theatrical or unrated cuts. It’s a curio, of course, but it’s interesting to see the extra footage, and it’s in very good condition, too. Television versions are often presented in SD only on many releases, so it’s impressive that this one is in full HD.
Pass is an interview with screenwriter David Engelbach, who relates how he tried to pass on the project when Menahem Golan offered him the job. Engelbach explains that his biggest dilemma was how to convince audiences that lightning could strike twice for Paul Kersey, but some of his ideas were changed in the final shooting script (though they made their way into a few of the sequels). Working with Bronson is an interview with Robert F. Lyons, who played Fred McKenzie in the film. He talks about his experiences making the film, with an emphasis on what Bronson was like. Dark Parts is an interview with Robin Sherwood, who describes the challenges that she faced playing Kersey’s daughter. She explains how she pulled from her own life experiences to create the character, and also gives her impressions of both Michael Winner and Bronson. Fights in the Theater is and interview with Todd Roberts, who is the son of the late producer Bobby Roberts. He says that there were fistfights in some theatres in New York due to racial tensions engendered by the film. He also spends time analyzing the progression between the two films, and his father’s feelings about the violence in the second one.
Death Wish II is an interesting title to get the full 4K Ultra HD treatment. The film has a fairly narrow target audience, one which may or may not overlap with owners of 4K players and displays, so it will be interesting to see how well that this Vinegar Syndrome release sells. Regardless of how anyone may feel about the film, Death Wish II has never looked prettier than it does here, so it’s well worth a look.
- Stephen Bjork