Another entry in the “urban America is hell” genre of 1980’s movies.
The film opens with an explosion and a high fall, as more movies should. We’re in Vietnam, and a couple of Rangers- Mike and John- are in deep shit after being caught by the Cong. After seeing another soldier beheaded Mike makes use of a cleverly hidden garotte to rescue John, who’s tied to stakes and next in line for decapitation.
Fast forward a few years and Mike and John are working in a food warehouse in New York city. John’s still twitchy and haunted by his war, but Mike’s a happy family man still capable of laying down a beating if necessary. Mixing it up with a gang called the Ghetto Ghouls, however, sees Mike beaten and paralysed and sets John off on a revenge spree.
Exterminator is different from other 80s action films, and in many ways more realistic. Robert Ginty, as John the Exterminator, is not the tough, unbeatable type. He’s vulnerable, occasionally even seeming terrified by what he’s got himself into. But once he’s started, he knows there’s no clean and easy way out, so he keeps on with his one man war on crime.
The Exterminator has his military training, and access to M16s and other Army kit, but he’s no tactical mastermind. The criminals he takes down, with the exception of the meat-packing districts main mobster, are targets of opportunity rather than part of a plan. The action all takes place at a believable level. This is probably a result of the limited budget the film had, and it works very well.
New York is a horrible, dangerous place in this film. The Bronx looks like it’s been bombed and Times Square is a seedy space full of porn and prostitutes under all the neon. The Exterminator moves between these apocalyptic spaces, almost guided by Brownian motion to find chicken pimps and perverse senators, scarred prostitutes and drugged out thugs until it all comes full circle and he has a final showdown with the Ghetto Ghouls.
There’s a cop on John’s tail, but he seems to spend more of his time starting a relationship with Mike’s doctor than trying to catch the Exterminator. The press and public love the vigilante, the Police department is ambivalent and the CIA have their own politically driven reasons to see him eliminated. Cop, killer and spooks eventually meet in a midnight rendezvous on the docks and it ends the only way it can.
This is a neat little film. Gruesome, for its time, and a scary representation of how grim some folks felt the world was in the eighties, it’s human scale and realistic nastiness make it a good counterpoint to the overblown outings of Stallone and Schwarzenneger.