Stony-faced, emotionless (even when every significant other in his life is obliterated off the face of the planet) and knows how to use any firearm that ever comes to hand, Bronson's Paul Kersey – the super pissed-off vigilante of the Death Wish franchise – can be awarded superhero status alongside John Rambo, Harry Callahan and other all-too-mortal tough guys.
|Director: Michael Winner; J Lee Thompson; Allan A Goldstein
Starring: Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia, Steven Keats, William Redfield
Screenplay: Wendell Mayes; David Engelbach;, Don Jakoby; Gail Morgan Hickman; Allan A Goldstein
The film that started everything off was Michael Winner's 1974 feature Death Wish, which went under the apt working title of 'The Sidewalk Vigilante'. Working from Wendell (The Poseidon Adventure) Mayes' screenplay, in turn based upon Brian Garfield's 1972 novel of the same name, Death Wish became an enormous commercial hit, turning over some $22 million upon its initial release (the film was made for three).
Set in New York City, Death Wish introduces Bronson's signature character Paul Kersey, a respected architect and 'bleeding-heart liberal' who lives the suburban life with his wife Joanna (Hope Lange). The two have an adult daughter Carol. After going shopping, Joanna and Carol are followed home by a group of thugs (among which is a young Jeff Goldblum). They break in, rape Carol and kill Joanna. Kersey is devastated and his employers grant him an extended business holiday to Arizona, where he speaks at length to Ames, a contact there – and we are told that, even though Kersey was a sharp shooter in his younger days, he remained a 'conscientious objector' during the Korean War. Ames scoffs and arms Kersey with a .32 pistol.
That's all Kersey needs. After witnessing a mugging one night, he opens fire, killing a multitude of 'creeps'. Running parallel to this are the investigations by Lieutenant Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia), and Kersey is forced to more skilfully cover his tracks as the police tighten a net around his vigilantism.
Death Wish is one of the seventies crime/neo-noir genre's great zeniths, a terrific companion piece to the Los Angelean and San Franciscan mean streets of Chinatown and Dirty Harry, respectively. Winner's tale of an epic skewing of the moral compass has laid the groundwork for dozens of other films with revenge as a crucial plot point. Garfield's book was followed relatively closely – though Kersey is called 'Paul Benjamin', and he's an accountant, not an architect in the novel – however the protagonist's descent into vigilantism is charted a tad more subduedly. Admittedly, a certain portion of Kersey's out-and-out kill-kill-kill attitude in the film is to appease the appropriate crowds and bring in the green, but Winner and Mayes use violence fairly judiciously here, focussing more on the psychological aspect where the sequels (particularly from the third on) were essentially action films.
Death Wish II is a cold and twisted sort of a film – succeeding the original by eight years, Bronson's Kersey has lost the anaemic sympathy he brought to the first instalment and has become something of an apathetic iconoclast. In this film, Kersey has relocated to Los Angeles where his Carol lives in various states of catatonia in an infirmary. After being accosted by a bunch of creeps in the city while out with Carol and his girlfriend Geri (played by Bronson's wife Jill Ireland), his wallet is stolen and Kersey gives pursuit, only chasing the guy who doesn't have it. The group decide to take some revenge and, using the details in Kersey's wallet, go to his house – Kersey's maid Rosario is there and, in a sequence that is unremittingly brutal, they assault then rape her. When Kersey returns with Carol, they knock him out and kidnap her, killing Rosario in the process. The five take Carol back to their hideout and she attempts escape, jumping from a two-storey window and, in some squirming irony, is impaled on a fence below. Kersey then plots intricate revenge.
Death Wish II is a far more disturbing film than the original, and this can be wholly attributed to Kersey's attitude. Really, he doesn't bat an eyelid when asked to ID his daughter in the mortuary, or in seeing the corpse of his brutalised housekeeper, or in shooting a bunch of freaks. Perhaps this is just Bronson's shoddy acting, but there seems to be more to it than that. Christ, Kersey even quips – 'do you believe in Jesus?' he icily asks a trembling creep at gunpoint, gesturing to the crucifix hanging around his neck. ''Cause you're gonna meet him'.
Death Wish II certainly isn't a better film than the original, but it is a very good effort – it's very, very grimy and very, very cold. Originally slated to be helmed by producer Menahem Golan (he later directed the Chuck Norris vehicle The Delta Force in '86), Winner returned on Bronson's orders. He brings a lot of the style that he used in the original, and it has a particularly seamy aesthetic. Death Wish II is also a clear transition point between Bronson the vigilante to Bronson the plasticky action figure.
Death Wish 3 is a guilty pleasure for your humble reviewer – it's not a particularly good film, and recycles every eighties action movie cliché that you care to think of, but it's a terrific product of its times. 1985 was the year that you could mail-order out for a rocket launcher and not arise suspicion, shoot someone in the face with a hand cannon in broad daylight in an inner city street and not have cops swarm down, and when a most-wanted Ziggy-era Bowie look-a-like can use a landline without fear of a wire tap. The MPAA slapped it with an X upon its initial release for extreme violence and it was cut down to an R; we're seeing this excised product, which is typical action fare – Kersey visits an old friend of his, Charley, living in the ghettos of East New York. The day he gets there, though, Charley is killed by one of the local gangs, headed by uber-psycho and aforesaid androgyne (though he'd kill me for even suggesting it) Fraker (Gavan O'Herlihy). After living in Charley's crime-ravaged district for a number of weeks, Kersey decides something needs to be done. And, in a not-too-sly slice of product placement, makes his order for a Wildey .475 Magnum hand cannon, a weapon that throws Harry Callahan's .44 back into the Stone Age. Hilariously, but perhaps more alarmingly, the gun's creator Wildey Moore admitted in a 2005 interview with American Handgunner, 'to this day there is a spike in Wildey Magnum sales every time Death Wish 3 appears on cable TV.'
And America isn't a nutty gun culture…[sarcasm]
Death Wish 4: The Crackdown isn't quite the same kettle of fish as its three predecessors – perhaps the concept is getting tired, but while it can be great fun, Kersey has lost his inimitable zing. Perhaps though, this third sequel doesn't quite have it because it's lost its original director – Winner is replaced here by J Lee Thompson, a Bronson favourite having helmed The Evil that Men Do and 10 til Midnight, and a cult hero for 1962's Cape Fear. This is similar in plot to Part 3 – maundering gangs of drug dealers with 'bad shit' (some of which kills Kersey's squeeze's daughter) need to be sorted out, and the cops dinnae quite cut it. However, the added contrivance of Mob hitmen and police corruption gives this a bit more of a midday-TV movie vibe, which isn't a good thing. That said, there's lots of fun to be had in that eighties action movie sort of way, nostalgic if you will. You've also gotta wonder about the mortality rate of Kersey's friends and loved ones – did I say at least some suspension of belief is required?
Death Wish V: The Face of Death (we revert back to the Roman numerals, perhaps to give an aura of faux-intelligence), unfortunately, has little to recommend it aside from Bronson and villain Tommy O'Shea, played by the incomparable Michael Parks. O'Shea is a local mobster who begins to pressure Kersey's ex-wife Olivia (Lesley Anne Down) for a piece of her lucrative fashion business. Things get nasty when one of O'Shea's goons beats Olivia to a pulp, paving the way for Kersey to do what he does best. It isn't terribly inspired (but after four bashes at it, it became uninspired long before Part V came 'round), but it isn't terribly well acted or directed either, with newcomer Allan A Goldstein helming the film with careless ham-fistedness.
This would probably be the only Death Wish instalment that I wouldn't recommend. It's a pity, though certainly by no means an unexpected one, to see Bronson ailing in his later film career – man was still kicking arse and taking names at 73 years of age, but instead of fist-in-the-air glee, there's a vague air of embarrassment accompanying his arthritic manoeuvring. What can be considered some semblance of a saving grace for this film is Michael Parks, a vastly underrated character actor. Strictly for completists only.
So. One brilliant work of cinema, two terrific action films, one beer-and-pizza movie and one uninspired abortion. As far as franchises go, you could do a lot worse.
As far as censorship is concerned, thankfully, all previous cuts have been waived. Even the excessive Death Wish II makes it here uncut, though three minutes of narrative footage has been excised (this only appears in a Greek video release, and has not appeared on DVD). Import Death Wish II with extreme caution – both the UK R2 and US R1 discs are heavily censored by the BBFC and MPAA respectively.