Blu-ray Review: Penitentiary II

After a great flourishing of black action films in the mid-70s (commonly known as the Blaxploitation era), the action died down. There’s many people to blame what stifled this flourishing of cinema that escalated Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Pam Grier to superstars. But there were still filmmakers that believed there was an audience that wanted to see more than white people problems on the screen. Jamaa Fanaka was one of them. While still an undergrad, he made Welcome Home, Brother Charles (to be released by Vinegar Syndrome on March 27). The film gained a cult after being released theatrically by Crown International. Fanaka wasn’t done and directed Penitentiary in 1979. The tale of a boxer behind bars did so well in the theaters that Fanaka made Penitentiary II with bigger stars and action.

How big? First there’s the return of Leon Isaac Kennedy (Hammer) as Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone. He’s out of prison after winning the big boxing tournament. But there’s a lot people who want him to keep fighting including people in the big house wanting a second round with him. He’s not happy that part of his parole is to work for a boxing promoter and that guy doesn’t want him just cleaning up the gym while Mr. T (The A-Team) works in the ring. But “Too Sweet” wants more out of his life and he has a sweet woman to help him adjust to life outside. Sadly this all goes crashing down when he gets a visit from one of his old prison pals Half-Dead (Ghostbusters‘ Ernie Hudson). Too Sweet is ready to lace up his gloves and pound away on the world.

The star power in the sequel makes this a heavyweight event. Glynn Turman from Cooley High, J.D.’s Revenge and Gremlins plays a pal to Too Sweet. Mr. T (D.C. Cab) gets an early break as he plays a sweet boxing coach before he went on to be “Clubber” Lang in Rocky III. Peggy Blow is currently on TV in American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. The biggest star of all is none other than Dolemite. Rudy Ray Moore gives an unforgettable cameo.

The big revelation is seeing how evil Ernie Hudson can be on the screen. With his shaved head, he’s a menace that can’t be stopped. When he enters the shower as part of his revenge plot, he’s extremely scary. If he was this nightmarish in Ghostbusters, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man wouldn’t have climbed up the 55 Central Park West building. It’s probably a good thing he rarely plays villains because the audience would be watching from under their seats.

Penitentiary II keeps the intensity even when “Too Sweet” is no longer behind bars. The additions to the cast make it amazing to watch. How can you say no to Mr. T lurking around a boxing ring with a genie lamp? The film tops the original with its theme of no matter how free you’ve become, you’re always going to have to fight. Jamaa Fanaka refused to believe that people only wanted to see white guys winning boxing matches in movies and we all won.

The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The restoration on the transfer really brings out the wickedness in Ernie Hudson’s work. He’s gonna scare you. The audio is Mono. You’ll hear plenty of hits and Mr. T pitying a few fools.

Commentary Track with Jamaa Fanaka taken from a previous edition. Fanaka passes away in 2012. He gives plenty of details about how the success of the first film influenced the story and budget on the second.

Isolated Score so you can just enjoy the music and the visuals.

In the Raw (27:37) is an archival interview interview with writer/director Jamaa Fanaka. He give advice for filmmakers in dealing with their contracts. He talks of the effect of the films on his career.

Too Sweet on the Outside (16:13) interviews Leon Isaac Kennedy. The actor reflects on playing the character again. The first film was a success even though it couldn’t open as wide as other flicks that year. He talks about getting people paid for the second film since it’s no longer a calling card. He discloses how they lured Mr. T into the production.

Trailer (2:27) shows that Mr. T has arrived.

Vinegar Syndrome presents The Fugitive Girls. Directed by: Jamaa Fanaka. Screenplay by: Jamaa Fanaka. Starring: Leon Isaac Kennedy, Ernie Hudson, Mr. T, Rudy Ray Moore. Rated: R. Running Time: 108 minutes. Released: February 27, 2018.

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