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Fighting Back (1982)
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by Jack Sommersby

"Second-Rate 'Death Wish'"
2 stars

While superior to James Glickenhaus's "The Exterminator," it doesn't have a whole lot to recommend except for some decent supporting performances.

John D’Angelo (Tom Skerritt) is fed up. An Italian-American with a thriving deli in south Philadelphia, he’s seen his neighborhood go from good to deplorable due to a rampant increase in street crime. Women and children can’t walk the sidewalks without getting hassled, the local park is home to drug dealers, warehouses are the constant targets of arson, home break-ins are now the norm than the exception, and with the police force stretched thin prompt response times are a thing of the past. When John and pregnant wife Lisa (Patti LuPone) are on their way to the gynecologist, while at a stoplight, they see a pimp and his henchmen beating up on one of their girls; Lisa foolishly gets out of the car and gives the man a piece of her mind, with not only the pimp enraged but the girl herself, who shouts expletives at her and tells her to mind her own damn business. John and Lisa hightail it out of there, but they’re chased by the pimpmobile which manages to run them off the street right in front of their house; Lisa is then transported to the hospital where she has a miscarriage. A few days after John and Lisa and their young teenage son are trying to put the past behind them, but when the son and his grandmother stop at a pharmacy to get her prescriptions, they stumble upon an armed robbery in progress -- the son is unharmed, but the grandmother’s finger is cut off to get at her diamond wedding ring. Lisa is adamant about their moving from this crime-infested area, but John, whose family business has been there for generations, is stubbornly opposed (“Runnin’ don’t settle a thing,” he maintains). With the rest of the frustrated citizens, including John’s police officer friend Vince (Michael Sarrazin), who volunteers in his off-hours, a “People’s Neighborhood Patrol” is established, with nightly patrols and a dispatcher eventually making something of a difference -- the crime rate starts to go down, which is just fine by the precinct’s commander and police commissioner, but not by the district’s councilman who’s worried the media exposure is making John something of a hero and maybe a possible contender for his political seat in a couple of months. Soon, John has to worry not just about the punks, but the police as well, who, being pressured by the councilman, are looking to arrest him for the slightest infraction, with John always ready with the comeback, “I’m just exercising my constitutional rights.” John starts to change, and not really for the better. He’s putting in so many hours with the Patrol that he’s ignoring his business and flirting with bankruptcy, he has no quality time for his wife and kid, and he starts taking outrageous chances, putting himself in imminent danger while at the same time reveling in his newfound fame and power.

Welcome to Fighting Back, a blatant Death Wish knockoff produced by the very same Dino De Laurentiis who was also responsible for that Charles Bronson box-office smash. Unfortunately, this wildly uneven action picture lacks the focus and ferocity of Death Wish as well as the color and energy of William Lustig’s Vigilante. Overexplicit and vacuous at the same time, there’s too much plot and not enough ratiocination rooting the proceedings in the organic -- though the movie is supposedly based on a true story, there are too many questionable bits and not enough congruities to lend it plausibility; it’s an array of second-hand spare parts imparted on a rusted-over chassis. Sensationalism and manipulation in and of themselves aren’t necessarily unwelcome, but by about the halfway mark Fighting Back, lacking the immediacy that all good revenge tales need, loses one’s interest. The mediocre screenplay is what it is (particularly weak is the introduction of a black teaching only other blacks how to defend themselves and insisting John is singling out the blacks and Hispanics, to which John counters, “Punks have no color!”), yet a commanding star performance and imaginative directing could’ve possibly elevated it, but neither Skerritt nor Lewis Teague, who’ve impressed before, are up to the demands. Skerritt, who was one of the army physicians in M*A*S*H and the spaceship captain in Alien, is an earnest, truthful actor, but he just doesn’t have the dynamism for the part; at most, he fills in about two-thirds of what’s needed, with that missing third a volatile unpredictability that would make the character believable as someone capable of inspiring his neighbors to put themselves at great risk for the sake of the Patrol. Skerritt moves around a lot does a lot of shouting, but more often than not he seems to be an understudy waiting for the real star to show up. (Sarrazin, who’s wasted in a nothing of a role but has a reasonably magnetic screen presence, would’ve been better.) As for director League, a protégé of low-budget-movie king Roger Corman, his previous works, The Lady in Red and Alligator, were superbly engineered B-movies that both respected and teased their genres. Here, Teague never gets any kind of rhythm going, the action sequences are poorly staged, and though the movie was filmed on some dilapidated Philadelphia locations, it lacks the gritty realism that Death Wish had in spades where every nighttime street corner and subway platform had a palpable sense of menace. Teague doesn’t give any charge to the material; he’s simply functioning as a let’s-not-rock-the-boat director. Fighting Back isn’t bad, but as a cinematic clenched-fist protest against a city’s ineffectual handling of on-the-rise crime, it’s bland, unremarkable, like a grand tour of your child’s high-school cafeteria.

Yeah, the four "Death Wish" sequels are trashy, but at least they're lively.

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originally posted: 01/30/15 04:29:58
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  21-May-1982 (R)



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