Friday, April 27, 2012

Prison Prescription: PENITENTIARY II (1982) & PENITENTIARY III (1987)

Earlier this month, pioneer black director Jamaa Fanaka passed away. His status as a pioneer comes mostly from his being in the L.A. Rebellion, a group of black U.C.L.A. film students in the early 1970s, and from his early independent exploitation flicks.  He started out with WELCOME HOME BROTHER CHARLES (1975), a horror film about a black prisoner who murders those who conspired to put him in jail with his, uh, rather large penis.  Such social commentary!  He followed that with EMMA MAE (aka BLACK SISTER’S REVENGE, 1976), but Fanaka really struck gold with his next film, PENITENTIARY (1979).  Focusing on the plight of falsely imprisoned boxer Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy), the film became a surprise hit at the box office over 1979 and 1980.

Reading about Fanaka’s death, I suddenly realized that I’d been aware of the man since probably my early teens when I saw a PENITIARY flick on the video store shelves, but I’d never actually seen any of the 6 feature films he made.  I decided to rectify that and gave the two PENITENTIARY sequels a viewing.  After watching the second one, I talked with Tom about it via email and came to the same conclusion as him.  I’d built these films up in my head (thanks to some great posters on the boxes) and heard so much about how gritty and tough that they were, that I was ultimately let down by how subpar they were.  I went in expecting ROCKY (1976) mixed with BRUTE FORCE (1947).  What I got was ROCKY by way of Rudy Ray Moore.

PENITENTIARY II (1982) opens with a ridiculously long opening crawl a la STAR WARS (1977) that brings us up on the plight of “Too Sweet” Gordone.  Having been released on early parole due to beating Jesse “The Bull” Amos in a prison boxing match, Gordone is supposed to work for a year at the boxing gym owned by the warden’s brother. Wait a sec, this movie is called PENITENTIARY and takes place in the free world?  Um, okay.  Gordone wants nothing to do with the brutal sport of boxing though, so he takes a job as a roller skating messenger and begins a relationship with Clarisse (Eugenia Wright). He also gets to live rent free with his lawyer sister (Peggy Blow) and her husband (Glynn Turman).  Everything seems to be going right for the ex-con and we can't have that happening.

Ah, the 1980s! A simpler time.

Of course, you just know his world is going to be turned upside down and it is courtesy of escaped con “Half Dead” Johnson (Ernie Hudson, taking over for Badja Djola in part 1). No joke, that crawl mentions how “Half Dead” has become obsessed with “Too Sweet” after he refused his “amorous advances” while in prison and got the crap beat out of him.  It sounds like our villain has a bad case of Battered Cellmate Syndrome.  The night Martel and Clarisse are going to get it on, “Half Dead” sneaks in and rapes and kills her in the bathroom that is 5 feet away from our hero (the sound of the shower was supposed to cover this brutal murder?).  “Too Sweet” finds his sweetie dead and proceeds to beat “Half Dead” half to death.  Wait, wouldn’t that mean he was fully dead?  Well, he beats him bad enough that when the cops show up he is arrested and barely living “Half Dead” (shouldn’t he be 99 and 44/100% dead?) is taken to the hospital.

"Thanks for the ride, lady."
(If you get that, you're awesome)
Anyway, “Too Sweet” gets off on self defense thanks to his sister (the trial is never shown) and decides there is only one thing he can do avenge the murder of his girl.  He must train boxing again to become a champion and he will start by fighting Jesse “The Bull” Amos again…in prison!  Haha, I knew we’d get some a penitentiary in here.  Wait a sec…Gordone’s brilliant plan for revenge is to get back into the boxing world and beat up a guy he already defeated?  What? That shows a lot about Fanaka’s script writing skills.  So “Too Sweet” starts training under the tutelage of Mr. T (billed as “himself”) and his old prison friend/trainer “Seldom Seen” (Malik Carter).  Meanwhile, “Half Dead” has escaped from the hospital thanks to his two bumbling buddies, Do Dirty and Simp.  Gotta give the movie credit, they do have amazing nicknames.  Believe it or not, the prison match is going to be nationally televised (in a room with about 75 people) and “Too Sweet” gets his ass whooped.  So this sets up a rematch that happens 15 minutes later (with no additional training scenes) to close out the film.

Truth be told, PENITENTIARY II is pretty cheap and cheesy stuff. I had to laugh at the Box Office review that called it “probably the clumsiest, shoddiest movie ever from a major distributor” (MGM/UA released this sequel theatrically). Fanaka has very little concept of how to present a realistic portrayal of something as simple as real-life.  You'll laugh at some bits (like when Mr. T’s sparring partner whips out a straight razor in the ring; where did he hide that and how can he pull it out so easily while wearing boxing gloves) and shake your head at others (like the aforementioned way they work a prison into the film; apparently you can do boxing shows on national TV from inside prison with real announcers and prisoners can gamble while one con constantly plays the saxophone). To match the nonsensical plotting, Fanaka just has completely random shit in here, like Mr. T showing up at the boxing matches dressed as a genie with a magic lamp that emits purple smoke.  This interesting character turn is never explained! There is a creepy angle exploited early on with Half Dead’s fixation on his prey (he literally rapes and kills Gordone's girl while stabbing her with a knife and calling out his “Too Sweet” name), but that is dropped as the villain becomes as comical as his sidekicks. Look for the scene where he smears potato salad on his girlfriend’s face and then lustfully licks it off.  Also look for Rudy Ray Moore in a cameo and Tony Cox as a gambling con who propositions ladies from under the ring.  The worst thing is the boxing matches are terrible.  Now I’m not expecting a ROCKY style fight here, but these guys look 3 weight classes apart, swing wildly and puke up gallons of blood when getting beaten down.  To the film’s credit, it may be inept and chaotic, but it is never boring.

Five years later, Fanaka and Kennedy returned with PENITENTIARY III (1987), which got funded by Cannon Films. I’m pretty sure the pitch meetings went something like this.

Fanaka: “So we have this prison boxing sequel…”
Globus: “Okay, here’s a check for $3 million.”
Golan: “Where the hell are the sandwiches we ordered?”

This sequel wastes little time setting up the plot as “Too Sweet” Gordone is boxing his friend El Cid in what appears to be a small conference room with, again, 75 spectators. Unbeknownst to our champ, someone slips a drug called valadine (?) into his water and he goes nutzo, killing his buddy in the ring.  Naturally, he gets sent up the river for three years (again, no court room scene) and heads to the pen in a paddy wagon with a prisoner kid playing a saxophone.  Jesus, what is with the saxophones, Jamaa? Anyway, the sax player, a white kid named Roscoe (Steve Antin), recognizes “Too Sweet” and informs him that, wouldn’t you know it, a big boxing tournament is coming up in the prison they are heading to. Yeah, it is one of those kinds of movies.

The way things work in this prison is that there are two boxing teams that face off.  One is run by the warden (Ric Mancini) and the other is run by the real boss of this joint, gangster Serenghetti (Anthony Geary, looking like a Tobin Bell in SAW impersonator).  This guy has so much power that he has his own lavish cell, a cross dressing courtesan who does his nails, and his own French chef (really!).  Gordone politely refuses offers from both gentlemen to be on their respective teams because “he is done with boxing” (yeah right). This is a bad move on his part as Serenghetti orders The Midnight Thud (Raymond Kessler, who wrestled professionally as The Haiti Kid) to be released to kill Gordone.  Who (or what) is The Midnight Thud?  He is a black midget who is locked in a dank cell in the prison basement who smokes crack while watching endless 16mm porn loops.  Really!

Amazingly (or not), “Too Sweet” defeats The Midnight Thud in a hilarious fight scene that goes on and on and on.  His punishment is he is taken down to the cellar and given electric shock treatment. Naturally, he becomes a vegetable but he manages to get it together when Roscoe, who is now in the tournament, asks him to train him. Oh man, this kid has no idea what he is in for. The night of his fight, “Too Sweet” is distracted while having sex with a female boxer on the card (“They call me Sugar, because I love the sugar cane” WHAT?) that he doesn’t know Roscoe’s fight has been moved up.  Roscoe takes a hellacious beating by one of Serenghetti’s men (Danny Trejo) hopped up on that super juice. When Gordone sees what has happened, he can do the only thing he knows to rectify this situation. That’s right – he challenges Serenghetti’s top man, Hugo (the deliciously named Magic Schwarz), to a fight.  And not just any old fight, this is going to be a no holds barred fight!  “Too Sweet” then gets the unlikeliest ally in…THE MIDNIGHT THUD! Thud, whose real name is Jessup, decides “crack is whack” and sobers up to start training “Too Sweet” for his revenge match (no joke, Thud’s teeth go from rotten green to pearly white in one scene during his transformation from crackhead to sensei).  He teaches “Too Sweet” that it is all about “Guts! Guts! Guts! Guts!” and, of course, he whoops dat ass in the finale.  And he better win given the shorts he chooses to wear in the final fight (see right).

"Too Sweet" died for our sins
For those who found PENITENTIARY II jus too damn realistic, Fanaka offers this off-the-wall trilogy closer that might be the most absurd prison flick after the classic ERNEST GOES TO JAIL (1990).  Of course, you know something is going to be messed up when you have a white kid named Roscoe in it. Fanaka’s attempts to capture brutal reality of prison life are again negated by scenes like Serenghetti having his own personal French chef complete with toque pushing his cart past prisoners and by characters like The Midnight Thud, whose grunts sound like the came from the same foley team who handled The Toxic Avenger’s sounds. That character is goofy enough, but to have him suddenly morph into the mystical trainer role is hilarious.  I guess you have to admire Fanaka’s absurdist tendencies, even if they were born out of ineptitude.  He is after all a filmmaker who gave his wife 5th billing in the opening credits, despite her only having one scene. Fanaka was obviously going for some religious parables here, but it is pretty heavy handed (the final fight has “Too Sweet” punched into a wall that leaves his bloody imprint Jesus-on-the-cross style and Serenghetti says, “Crucify him!”).  The only surprise here is that the warden character actually turns out to be a nice guy.  I didn’t see that coming.  But, as the warden says to Serenghetti, “You know what your problem is?  You’ve seen too many bad prison pictures.”  You can say that again.

2 Reactions:

  1. Fantastic summation of this crazy series.

  2. "Thanks for the ride lady"? He played the hitchhiker that gets run over by a rich lady in of them Stephen King anthology thingys.


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