The Exterminator, 1980.
Directed by James Glickenhaus.
Starring Robert Ginty, Samantha Eggar, Christopher George and Steve James.
When his best friend is left paralysed by thugs, a Vietnam veteran sets out to clean the streets of low-lifes, thugs and gangbangers in a crusade of vigilante vengeance.
Somewhere between the end of the 70s era, of stark, gritty, exploitation vigilante flicks like Death Wish, and the 80s unabashed and sometimes cartoon heroics of Rambo or Chuck Norris, is The Exterminator. It’s a mish-mash of the two, and, as prevalent in both 70s and 80s action flicks, Vietnam is a theme. Robert Ginty plays John Eastland, a burnt out Vietnam vet, whose best friend and former war buddy, played by Steve James (American Ninja), is left completely paralysed by a street gang. Eastland takes bloody revenge on them, and continues his vigilantism by taking out the scum of New York, be it Mobsters or child sex traffickers. Eastland is part Bronson in Death Wish and part John Rambo.
The Exterminator is pretty trashy. Like many films of this era its main concern is to go about its business with ruthless efficiency and many expenses are spared. The film cobbles together brief punctuations of extreme violence (at least for those days – it’s hardly Saw). Thematically, like much of cinema in this period, it’s not afraid to scrape the bottom of the barrel for the most putrid of society’s evils. Since the film has been made, in recent times several of its themes have become persistent and major points of debate and concern in modern society, such as paedophilia and euthanasia. So whilst on surface it may seem like cheap shlock, it’s not without political and sociological merit.
Writer/Director James Glickenhaus’ style, in both writing and directing is very simplistic. Certainly the script never really devotes too much time to any drama, whilst a constant strange shift between scenes (partly script, perhaps partly down to editing) is quite jarring. A rather needless subplot involving cop Dalton (Christopher George), and a romance with Doctor Megan Stewart (Samantha Eggar) is never given enough time to hold any emotional resonance, and just slows the film down. Shot in a very rigid style of simple master and coverage, Glickenhaus gets the job done with minimal fuss, which while static at times, does add an earthy grit to the dark nature of the film. It seems clear his main pre-occupation is with those moments of violence, with a notable inspiration from one Sam Peckinpah.
I’m undecided on Robert Ginty. His performance is either terrible, and as wooden as a stack of logs, or his (possibly) disengaged, distant portrayal of a haunted and emotionally retarded former Nam vet, is a work of sheer brilliance. Either way, it works for the film. Ginty is certainly not going to be remembered as one of the game changing action guys, nor does he really even look the part. Even Charles Bronson, whose role in Death Wish saw him playing an average family man turned cold blooded killer, was still Charles Bronson and thus as hard as a slab of solid steel. The rest of the cast is solid enough, including the always reliable Steve James, who surprisingly never had the career or notoriety in the action genre his ability deserved, certainly when you consider he co-starred in Michael Dudikoff’s launching pad, American Ninja. Dudikoff became a video icon, despite James having more charisma and certainly a lot more prowess in martial arts and on screen fighting. Though his death in the early 90s certainly didn’t help his career.
The Exterminator is a solid entry into the vigilante sub-genre of the action market. Successful enough to earn a sequel, yet not a film that races to the tip of the tongue like Death Wish, when discussing iconic films of the genre.