Monday, January 21, 2013

RIP Michael Winner

(from the archives, a piece written in mid-2005.)

So now I'm at home, watching AMC's OVERKILL DOUBLE BILL, Charles Bronson shooting the hammiest packs of 80s street punks you ever saw in DEATH WISHes II and III. Both were directed by Michael Winner - he directed the controversial and interesting DEATH WISH a decade prior (and worked with Bronson prior to that on the lean and gripping THE MECHANIC before that), but by this time he really was slumming. Indeed, it was during the 80s that he unleashed the sleazy, wrong-headed and hilarious teen-in-peril schlock-a-thon SCREAM FOR HELP, the only movie I still love for totally wrong reasons (Time Out raved: "Will cause Winner fans to re-view earlier work to reassess a hitherto unappreciated comic talent."). The films viewed tonight are pretty unrelenting - the world seems to consist solely of victims, badly dressed street punks, and Bronson. II is a bit more raw and painful (though a great deal of the nauseating violence has been cut out), as the remainder of Bronson's family are killed, and he sets off on a vendetta against the bastards who killed them. They belong to a larger gang, so Bronson kills the rest of them, too, as long as he's there.

The movie takes itself very seriously, though a young Laurence Fishburne wears goofy new wave shades and dances while licking a switchblade. The urban grime is piled on so thick you gotta wade through it - and holy God, I don't believe that a) Laurence Fishburne was the dude who tried to hide behind the ghettoblaster during the big gunfight about 90 minutes in and b) AMC actually kept in the bit where his eye falls out. It's like I got my own little grindhouse right here in my apartment. Right on.

(NOTE: Jimmy Page composed and performed the score to DEATH WISH II. John Paul Jones composed and conducted the score to SCREAM FOR HELP. What hold did Michael Winner have over the members of Led Zeppelin that enabled him to use their talents in such twisted service? And what excuse can be made for Jones' berzerk and overwrought symphonic score for SCREAM FOR HELP [Time Out again: "...soundtrack so far removed from the action as to be positively existential."]?)

DEATH WISH III's a great deal sillier and schlockier, with only friends of Bronson getting hurt or killed this time out. Anarchy reigns to a ludicrous degree - we don't see a woman walking down a street carrying a purse without watching some punks run up and snatch it. A whole neighborhood is terrorized by these troublesome jerks, but with the blessing of a corrupt police lieutenant (Ed Lauter, natch) Bronson shows up to set things right and avenge the violence inflicted on his friends. He gets into it, too, and is seen doing things like wasting a couple of punks with an elephant gun for fucking with his car radio. But they keep coming after his friends, and even throw buddy Martin Balsam down a fire escape in probably the most half-assed Hitchcock homage ever committed to film. Soon the violence escalates and you have a full-tilt battle royale, as Bronson takes a big Browning machine gun and mows down legions of punks, and the good citizens of the neighborhood take their guns out of their bureaus to help take back the streets. The leader of the street punks (who, it must be pointed out, sports a spectacularly asinine reverse mohawk) is dispatched in an effective and hilarious manner, and Bronson, empowered and absolved by Lauter's manly nod of endorsement, packs his bags and walks down the street into the sunset. Fantastic.

Due respect to the late Michael Winner, who entertained even at his sleaziest.

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