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Monday, July 23, 2012

Penitentiary II (1982)

My brother picked this up from a VHS swap meet here in town last week. Obviously we were drawn in by the insanely vivid box art but the pictures/description on the back only made things worse. By worse I mean this movie could be one of two things: really unbelievably awful or honestly really good in a not very scummy or entirely exploitative way. We got column B much to our deep satisfaction. While I haven't seen any other films in the oeuvre of director Jamaa Fanaka, this one definitely makes me want to take a closer look.


Yes this movie is as good as the trailer would lead you to believe. Maybe you won't agree and think this movie is shit anyway, but that's fine by me because I know a diamond in the rough when I see one as far as my own personal tastes are concerned.  Giving a proper plot synopsis as it relates the the first Penitentiary movie made in 1979 is impossible, as I have yet to see it and frankly didn't know it existed until I saw this copy of the sequel. But by information from friends who have seen all three of these films (yes, it's a trilogy!), the second one is the best of them. IMDB user/critic ratings show the opposite is the case but I obviously don't agree with their assessment insofar as the quality of the second film is concerned. I want to see the first one to be sure things are in line. Expect me to get back to you about that at some point maybe.

Plot synopsis: Martel "Too Sweet" Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy) has just been released from prison on parole and is struggling to set his life in order. He shacks up with his sister Ellen and her husband Charles (Glynn Turman of Cooley High fame!) and gets employment at a boxing gym. Too Sweet refuses the owners attempts at getting him to box like he did in prison, as he wants to get on the straight and narrow and put the past to rest. Unfortunately for Too Sweet, his former cell mate and prison rival Half Dead (Ernie Hudson, just two years before being in Ghostbusters!) is out for revenge. After Half Dead rapes and murders his girlfriend, and tries to kill our hero, Too Sweet vows to return to boxing in her memory. With the help of his trainer Mr. T (obviously played by Mr. T, right after his appearance in Rocky III) he gets into fighting shape. But Half Dead never dropped his revenge scheme...

Considering the significant blanks I had to leave (an audience update is provided by and obviously Star Wars influence angled opening crawl even!) I think that gives you enough to figure out how this movie works. It's really strange to see a film made in the early 1980's that still utilizes tried and true Blaxploitation style dialogue. It made me think the film was made several years earlier until I looked it up, leaving me doubly surprised as you can very well imagine.

This movie really doesn't fuck around at any point. I did not find a single minute where I was checking my watch to see how long it had been on, because it has a capable cast and a pretty decent script. Sure the cinematography is really pedestrian, but when the cast is pulling their weight like this all things fall by the wayside. It's a pleasure to see a film like this that doesn't drag anywhere like so many do. The director (who had several films under his belt at this point) had a pretty respectable budget to work with, and hired some really terrific actors. On top of that, there's a few surprising cameos too- including Rudy Ray Moore and a very early film role for Tony Cox (billed here as Joe Anthony Cox). As a HUGE Tony Cox fan, I was stoked beyond belief to see him appear out of nowhere.

The soundtrack for this movie is really truly amazing. What's perhaps more amazing is the fact that it was never commercially released. A cursory internet search reveals absolutely nothing sans other people looking for it. While I have not researched this thoroughly, at least a couple of the songs in the film by the later era disco/funk group Klique (who also briefly appear in the film at a night club) are likely available on one or more of their albums or singles of the era. The real killer track that nobody can track down so hard that even the title eludes us is linked below. I think any self respecting DJ would kill for this:

If anybody out there finds a lead on info for that track you must let me know IMMEDIATELY. I'm pretty fucking serious about this. I'm fairly certain the main riff would be pure hip hop sample gold. For all of you that never seem to watch the youtube clips I ever so carefully select for my reviews, you just missed an unknown classic.

One thing I really have to comment on is the unintentional homoerotic undertones in this movie. I don't really think I have to explain further than it's a boxing movie featuring shirtless sweaty dudes with lots of muscles. If you need a plainer picture than that, maybe it's high time you took a few steps outside the third grade. Repeatedly showing how Too Sweet is desired by the ladies makes things seem forced but in a really hilarious and understated way. I know this was not the director's intention but I can't help but bring that sort of thing up.

If Jamaa Fanaka were still alive (he unfortunately passed away on April 1st of this year) I would definitely shake his hand to no end. I think that about does it, because I'm leaving the rest of the movie as a surprise for the faithful. It is readily available on DVD and at least three (though probably several more than that) VHS editions.


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