Sunday, September 18, 2011

#408. The Exterminator (1980)

Directed By: James Glickenhaus

Starring: Robert Ginty, Samantha Eggar, Christopher George

Tag line: "In war you have to kill to stay alive ... on the streets of New York, it's often the same"

Trivia:  An entire animated body with graphic facial expressions was built for one of this film's most infamous scenes

The Exterminator opens with all hell breaking loose in Vietnam, but as battle scenes go, it's not very convincing. The locale is obviously man-made, and most of the explosions lighting up the landscape are of the typical Hollywood variety: bright flashes that don't amount to very much. But there's one moment mixed in, when a captured American soldier is beheaded by the enemy, that looks real enough to send shivers down your spine. The Exterminator doesn't get everything right, but man oh man, can it bring the pain! This is one violent motion picture. 

Following their escape from a Vietnamese POW camp, John Eastland (Robert Ginty) and his buddy, Michael Jefferson (Steve James), make their way back to friendly territory, and to safety. When next we meet them, several years have passed, and both are working on the loading docks for a New York beer distributor. When Eastland spots some gang members stealing cases of beer, he approaches them, only to be knocked down and held at knife point by their leader. Jefferson shows up on the scene and saves Eastland, but the thugs return the next day and cripple Jefferson while he's on his way to work. Eastland comforts Jefferson’s wife, Maria (Michele Harrell), while at the same time plotting out his revenge. He tracks down and eliminates the gang members who badly injured his friend, but he doesn't stop there. Soon, he's taking on every criminal he comes across, from mob bosses to common thieves. Eastland's vigilante style of justice doesn't sit well with the local police, who assign detective Dalton (Christopher George) to track him down. But neither Dalton nor the CIA seem able to stop the man the local media has started calling The Exterminator. 

The Exterminator is, first and foremost, an action film, and as such doesn't spend a lot of time delving into the reasons behind John Eastland's transformation from law-abiding citizen to bloodthirsty vigilante. There's the occasional Vietnam flashback, of course, that hints at a much deeper psychological wound, but it's not fully explored, and we never know why he continues on as “The Exterminator” well after the punks who attacked Jefferson have been dealt with. Another area the film comes up short in is the local police's pursuit of Eastland. Though n charge of the investigation, Dalton seems much more interested in wooing a nurse (Samantha Egger) than in apprehending the vigilante, and it isn't until the very end that he's able to piece two clues together (and only then thanks to a stroke of dumb luck). 

The Exterminator doesn't explore these aspects of its story because it's just not that kind of film. This a a movie about one man's quest to bring an end to crime, and to punish the guilty in as violent a manner as he possibly can. When he learns a local mobster (Dick Boccelli) has been shaking down his company for protection money, Eastland kidnaps him and threatens to drop him into a meat grinder if he doesn't give it all back. A local pimp (Tony DiBennedetto), who secures underage boys for his upper-class clientele, meets an even worse fate, as does one of the pimp's best customers (David Lipman). 

Forget about the reasons why: The Exterminator is all about delivering bloody justice, and on that level, it's a smashing success.

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