Vigilantism has been a recurring motif in cinema for years. It all started with the archetype of "The Good Cop WhoDoesn't Play by the Rules" which eventually became a stereotype. As crime escalated in the United States, the citizens lost faith in their sworn protectors, especially in the post-Vietnam era when faith in authority was at an all-time low. It was time for a new cinematic hero (or in this case, antihero). Enter the "Vigilante" archetype, a common citizen who is pushed over the edge into violent retaliation by savage criminals and the ineffectuality of police bureaucracy. In the simplest terms, he (or she, witness Neil Jordan's fine The Brave One) is "Dirty" Harry Callahan with a screw loose, no badge, and tons of ordnance. The appeal lies in the vicarious righting of every wrong ever done the viewer.
Unfortunately, Exterminator 2, while hitting all the bullet points of the Vigilante film, somehow manages to mishandle just about everything, thematically and formally. The late Robert Ginty reprises his role of John Eastland, a Vietnam vet (we're clued into this visually by his wearing a very new-looking Army jacket almost ten years after the war's end) who hangs out at the most brightly-lit-ever club, watches Caroline (Deborah Geffner) gyrate onstage there, and occasionally incinerates evildoers with a flamethrower. Gang leader, X (Mario Van Peebles), meanwhile, wants control of all crime in the city, because, as he puts it, he "is the streets." Naturally, Eastland will be forced to confront X but only after everything has been taken from him. I'm tempted, but I won't spoil the ending.
The movie is rife with overkill, and this is one of its most entertaining aspects. The most obvious example is the basic premise. Out of any weapon you could use to fight crime, why would you choose a flamethrower? It's heavy, cumbersome, and can't melt any bullets fired at you. The answer is simplicity itself: It looks cool onscreen. Plus, it does much more grievous bodily harm than most guns. I'd hate to see the Exterminator use it in Central Park during a drought, though. Of course, X and his thugs are just as bad. The best instance that springs to mind is when the gang drags an armored car guard down into the subway (in procession with torches and everything, mind), spray paint a giant "X" on his torso, and then not only electrocute him on the subway's third rail, but also have him run over by said conveyance. The mafia goons who show up are just as ridiculous. Now, I'm not up on gangster fashion, but I'm fairly sure porkpie hats went out with the 60s (unless you're into ska music).
The 1980s inform every frame of this film, for better or worse. The very first shot is of a pre-Giuliani Times Square, and your anticipation swells. Sadly, the film never crawls fully down into the gutter, where it belongs, to wallow in the slop like it could have. Instead, we get sequences loaded with (hell, downright focused on) breakdancing and rollerskating (sometimes in the same scene). Buntzman even tries to justify this egregious padding by making a street performance into a plot point, but it's pretty flimsy. Geffner's aspiring dancer (aren't they all?) character is a blatant riff on Flashdance, and while she does seem to have some talent, the gaudy choreography (normally a plus) only serves to embarrass. Since movies like The Road Warrior and Escape From New York were popular at the time, the filmmakers also tried to sandwich in the post-apocalyptic angle via X's subterranean gang. Torches are the only lighting they know, aboveground or under. They paint their faces in tribal, "punk" fashion. Van Peeble's character dresses in modified football pads over a mesh shirt. This sort of incongruity can be pretty funny, just not really helpful to the film.
The biggest problem I had with the film, though, was its depiction of the title character. For the first two-thirds, when the Exterminator does show up, it's usually for only a few seconds. He immolates a few hoodlums and disappears. The eponymous character is peripheral in his own story, almost like "Godot" but without the existential angst (and the Exterminator does make an appearance now and then). Add to that, the fact that no one ever addresses that Eastland is a vigilante, even Eastland. In fact, Ginty never plays Eastland as anything other than an exuberant schlub. His performance is totally at cross-purposes with the feel and point of this genre. It's frustrating to the point of distraction.
The technical aspects call attention to themselves, as well. On multiple occasions, the characters eyelines are noticeably off. It's so flagrant in fact, it yanks you right out of the movie. The dialogue is horrid, but quite risible. Alas, Van Peebles is the biggest offender in this regard. He strains for an air of cool menace, but he sounds like a litany of non sequiturs overheard at a Jim Jones picnic. And, even though it's the best scene in the film, the final showdown is edited like a Scooby Doo chase montage. I was waiting for Don Knotts and Tim Conway to pop in for a guest spot. Now, I'm willing to forgive a lot in the name of entertainment, but if the filmmakers can't even be bothered to adhere to cinematic basics, it diminishes my enthusiasm.
Exterminator 2 is just one wasted opportunity after another. There's no character development at all. It's as if they felt it was all covered in The Exterminator, so there's no need. There's a nice set-up for a pimped-out garbage truck, but the execution is like the difference between comic book ads for X-ray specs and an actual pair of X-ray specs. The mafia angle is dropped as soon as it has served its purpose. There's no police investigation into any of the goings-on. And worst of all, there's not the slightest hint of tension for the climactic showdown. Everything just kind of happens. And these are not all things that would have cost tons of money to address. Either the filmmakers' ineptness or their lack of respect for the audience ultimately unravels what could have been a decent, little Vigilante movie. Whether it's a spot on the ass of its predecessor, I'll leave for others to debate.
MVT: The A-Team-esque, tricked-out garbage truck. It's a nice buildup to a good idea that fails in execution.
Make or Break: The "Break" is when Eastland, the Executioner, decides to team-up with his pal, Be Gee (Frankie Faison), to go after the punks. Eastland's supposed to be a vigilante, a solo act by all accounts. It totally defies logic for him to go this route after what he's done already. And it's totally unsatisfying.
Great review, Todd! I was really drawn to both EXTERMINATOR movies as kid because of the artwork, but I don't remember much about the actual movies. Maybe I'll review the first EXTERMINATOR for the blog one of these days if you don't get around to it.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Aaron. I believe I just saw that there's a Bluray/DVD combo coming out of the first one in the fall. I'm not overly-anxious, but the Glickenhaus/James/George comb might just draw me in. I used to love the artwork on these, too. I'm actually surprised I didn't rent them.ReplyDelete
The first one is way more fun than the second and well worth seeing. As cool as that poster is the UK video artwork is even better. Unfortunately the film didn't live up to it though!ReplyDelete
Go ahead and track down a copy of the first. The Original is such a much better film, but Steve James one of my all times favs is not cast in an ass kicking role. However it does show that seedy side of New York much better and it's just an overall better film. Plus it's shows one brutal decapitation scene for you gore lovers. It's easily found in VHS form on EbayReplyDelete
Great job yet again, Todd. I had these on my roadmap to review, too. Glad you beat me to the sequel by the sounds of it.ReplyDelete
I'm getting the feeling I should track down the first one? :)ReplyDelete
Thanks to all of you for reading and for your feedback. Chad and Aaron, if either one of you (or both) would like to review the first film, by all means don't let me stop you. It might even be interesting to see what multiple opinions of it would be(?)
Sounds good, man!ReplyDelete