Monday, September 1, 2014

Exterminator 2 (1984)

Written by: Mark Buntzman and William Sachs
Directed by: Mark Buntzman
Robert Ginty as John Eastland
Mario van Peebles as X
Frankie Faison as Be Gee
Deborah Geffner as Caroline

Despite the fact that the two movies bear only the slightest resemblance to each other, I could never keep Exterminator 2 and Executioner Part II straight in my head. Probably because virtually all of that similarity is in the titles. Thus it was that when I put this DVD in the player to get ready for this round table, I was convinced I was about to see a vigilante hero shoving grenades down rapists' pants for 90 minutes, despite the fact that I couldn't remember Mario van Peebles having anything to do with it. Turns out I had it wrong, and this is the Cannon-ized, Death Wish-ified sequel to 1980's Exterminator. I believe that confusion is intentional on the part of the makers of Executioner Part II, as there is no Executioner Part I, and Executioner Part II is almost certainly a cash grab at some of the box office for this higher profile picture that came out the same year.

I'm not really sure how Cannon Films came to be making a sequel to a movie that came out four years previous (I didn't have time to listen to the commentary before going to press with this, it's possible the beans are spilled therein) and wasn't a monstrous hit to begin with, but I imagine it had more than a little to do with the fact that their Death Wish series was raking in the bucks. They had already been doing those for a decade by this point, and Bronson wasn't getting any younger, so I'm sure it seemed like a good idea to have another franchiseable vigilante character in the stable, and any name recognition is better than none at all. Problem is, Paul Kersey is a likeable, sympathetic everyman character who is forced to extreme action because outside forces back him into a corner. So was John Eastland the first time around. In this installment, Eastland is a gigantic loser who manages to get everyone around him killed because he's absolutely fucking terrible at being a vigilante.

The streets of New York have been relatively crime free for four years. The threat of fiery death from the vigilante known as the Exterminator has sent most of the thugs packing to safer territory. However, there's a new kingpin in town. His name is X, he dresses like one of the more outlandish pro-wrestlers at the height of their mania for wacky costumes, and he's organizing every two-bit hood rat in the city into a highly efficient criminal army to take back what he feels are their streets.

Meanwhile, John Eastland hasn't held a steady job in four years, but somehow he manages to belong to a members-only nightclub that offers free beer and the debatable allure of a middle-aged Broadway failure doing spazzy step-aerobics to terrible synth pop without ever removing a single article of clothing. One night he hears a robbery in progress on the police scanner, and discovers some thugs have killed the owners of a small convenience store. The thugs get toasted, and soon the word is out that the Executioner is back. X is furious that his revolution is in danger of being over before it starts, and so the hunt is on for the man behind the welding mask. Too bad for all involved, John just hooked up with Caroline the club dancer and got a job with Be Gee the freelance garbage truck driver. Now X will have some soft spots to strike at to bring John down.

The biggest problem with this movie is that the bad guy gets all the good humanizing moments. We spend far more time getting to know X than we do Eastman. Granted, this is a sequel, but it's a sequel four years after the original. The only character development we get with John before he basically becomes a slasher for the last half of the movie is that he has no job because of reasons. He starts up a relationship with Caroline for the sole purpose of having her killed off to up the stakes at the end, but there's no real chemistry or feeling of interest generated in the audience. Compare that to X's impassioned speech about his men not deserving to die because they never had a chance at a real life and have to fight for survival – never mind that they killed an innocent old couple and that it certainly wasn't their first violent crime – and you kinda start to wonder why you're supposed to root for the bum with the flamethrower. Well, it's because he wears an Army jacket, stupid. That's shorthand for “hero”, even if our hero's big happy moment before things go south is drunk driving a garbage truck he barely knows how to handle through crowded city streets so he can get laid.

Thinking about it that way, this almost becomes an anti-vigilante movie, with the villain being the deeper character and the ostensible hero becoming, as I said earlier, almost a slasher figure. Granted the criminals are still criminals, but at least their faces aren't hidden behind masks the whole time. Take away the hero's face and he becomes an inhuman engine of destruction. Put that engine up against a guy who can make speeches that can almost turn you sympathetic to violent thugs, and you really are left wondering whose side you're supposed to take. Except you're not at all, because they killed Caroline and Be Gee, and John was in the Army, and he has a totally boss garbage truck he converted into a tank!

No, of course the movie doesn't really have layers like that. It's a Cannon Films vigilante action movie ferchrissakes! The reason it seems so disjointed is that there was barely two weeks of prep time from, “Hey, we're gonna make this movie”, to “Hey, start making that movie.” Mark Buntzman, who was a producer on the first Exterminator, wrote the original script and shot the original cut of the flick. The Cannon boys didn't like the way it ended, with Caroline surviving (once again, it's a Cannon vigilante movie, if the women aren't all raped and dead by the end of the second act, you did it wrong) and even saving John and getting the final, killing shot on X, so they called in William Sachs to “fix” things, which I have to assume made them considerably worse since the guy who worked on the first movie probably had a much better handle on how things should go.

At least it had a cool garbage truck. And Irwin Keyes's character from the original magically coming back to life.

Cinemasochist Apocalypse is simply the glass of orange juice in the complete breakfast of the Cannon Fodder roundtable, honoring the recently departed Menahem Golan, and discussing the films of Golan-Globus and Cannon Films. You can read more at your local library, and at these other fine sites. But you don't have to take my word for it.

Terrible Claw Reviews:  Lifeforce

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