It’s business as usual for Cannon’s most relentless purveyor of vengeance
Everybody can get behind a good vigilante story. In fact, most of the time it doesn’t have to be all that good. Revenge, vengeance, they are two of cinema’s biggest and often cheapest commercial draws. Vigilante movies exploit our base desires in the most black and white terms, allowing us to vicariously fulfil some of our darkest fantasies. Most of us would never go as far as to physically hurt someone, regardless of how that person may have impacted our lives or those of our loved ones, but it doesn’t mean we don’t fantasise about it. Someone, somewhere, will inevitably do wrong by us, and it is human nature to seek retaliation.
Vigilante films have a long and storied history going all the way back to 1938’s swashbuckling classic The Adventures of Robin Hood. Asides from a few exceptions ― Ingmar Bergman’s rape and revenge fantasy The Virgin Spring and Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai movie Yojimbo being the most notable ― the theme found its home in the western genre prior to the 1970s for obvious reasons, but it was Clint Eastwood’s western derivative ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan who updated the formula to a modern urban setting, becoming the blueprint for modern action movie vigilantes.
The western genre thrived on the most basic delineations of good vs evil, which is what made former western star Ronald Reagan the perfect president back in the 1980s, a time when the US was turning a blind eye to cocaine smuggling while victimizing those lower class minorities addicted to crack cocaine; a cheaper, more powerful form of powder cocaine that obliterated black communities. Reagan would promote his hypocritical ‘war on drugs’ ad nauseum during his time in office, but it was less a war on those manufacturing and distributing the drugs, more a class and race war on the victims. In the media, those victims were portrayed as little more than animals, the cause of theft, violence, rape, murder, and a whole plethora of undesirable buzzwords connected to the media’s coverage of the drug pandemic. In the eyes of middle-class, white America, it was the poor minorities who were to blame for society’s degradation, a tale as old as time.
In order justify acts of seemingly unnecessary violence there could be no shades of grey. If audiences were to buy into characters who gunned people down without consequence, they had to be Regan-esque in their cowboy philosophies, their victims deserving of their fate. This meant there were two kinds of people in the world: those who were good and honest and noble and those who were just plain bad, those who deserved to live and those who didn’t. After all, that was how the media portrayed people.
Harry’s most transparent imitator was arguably spaghetti western icon Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey, an average Republican Joe who took to the streets for a little eye-for-an-eye retribution after his wife was murdered and his daughter sexually assaulted during a home invasion, pumping round after round into America’s no-good minorities. The fact that such a movie would spawn a franchise of like-for-like outings, each more bloodthirsty and ethically bereft than the last, was indicative of society’s shallow, misguided view of crime and its victims, and their readiness to buy into such fallacies.
Mrs. Kaprov: [inspecting a booby-trap, Kersey notices something] What is it?
Paul Kersey: Teeth.
Cinema is inherently fascist, and none more than the urban vigilante movie. Most of us are wise enough to see through the sweeping stereotypes and dubious sentiments, but when those in power are looking to exploit those sentiments for political gain, it can all become rather harmful, causing civil unrest, enforcing racism and class division and instilling outmoded John Wayne attitudes in a country where gun culture is almost ubiquitous. Nothing speaks to the lowest common denominator like a good dose of blind hatred, and governments are always looking for someone to point the finger at who can deflect from their own culpability. Vigilante films can also be used to put the fear of God in people. Fear is the ultimate outlet for control, and discrimination is invariably a part of the recipe. As a mainstream vehicle, the Death Wish concept is perfect for spreading those messages. It is also a sure-fire way to sell tickets.
While such movies naturally played into the hands of Republican politics in the 1970s and 1980s, cult distributors The Cannon Group just wanted to make movies. At the turn of the 80s, Israeli producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus would roll the dice on foreign shores by purchasing Cannon Films, a then-flailing production company specialising in modest, small-scale movies. The duo would touch on a plethora of controversial, real-life issues as they transformed the studio into an exploitative, warmongering VHS titan who tapped into everything from the Cold War to Operation Entebbe, a real-life hostage situation recreated for Chuck Norris’ ultra-violent Cannon outing The Delta Force, a film that Variety described as “an exercise in wish fulfillment for those who favor using force instead of diplomacy.”
With their winning modus of working with bottom rung scripts or selling a movie based on a poster and making it up on the fly, Golan-Globus became major players during the home video boom, even attracting the likes of Sylvestor Stallone for the hugely successful vigilante flick Cobra, but their first major coup star-power wise was Bronson. The pair would purchase the Death Wish franchise from Italian-American producer Dino De Laurentiis, with Golan himself set to direct, but Bronson insisted on recruiting British director Michael Winner as he looked to return his John Wayne act to the inner cities. The ruthlessly exploitative Winner was in need of a hit to salvage his waning directorial career and would pull no punches with the classless and unconscionable Death Wish II.
Death Wish II was one of the most controversial films of the era, something that was very much a concerted effort as Winner looked to recapture his commercial relevance by any means necessary. Grinning from ear to ear like a decadent tycoon, Winner would casually suck on a cigar while smugly deflecting cries of foul play from gender groups across America, who were quite rightly horrified by the movie’s gratuitous rape scenes and instances of unabashed sodomy, of racial discrimination and random acts of senseless violence, encouraging his aggressors like a crapulent king goading the starving masses. All insinuations of artless filmmaking were deflected insouciantly. Winner was back, and back with a particularly loud bang.
By the time Bronson stepped into Kersey’s coldblooded shoes for a second time, the character had already been tarnished beyond recognition, particularly in the eyes of Death Wish author Brian Garfield, who in his novel of the same name had portrayed Kersey as “a very sick man”, and not the second amendment poster boy for Reaganite politics. So appalled was Garfield at what the silver screen had done to his literary vision he would write his own Death Wish sequel, which set out to salvage a character who was originally penned as a warning against gun-happy retribution. Of course, it was too late. A mere fraction of those who had seen the original Death Wish movie had read Garfield’s novel. Cannon’s rogue crusader was now public property.
Death Wish II would prove a monumental success for a company of Cannon’s financial aspirations. With a cumulative worldwide gross of $45,000,000 on a budget of approximately $2,000,000, Winner and his backers had spun commercial silk, and a series of cheapo, money-spinning sequels were only inevitable. With Winner himself thirsty for more, the old gang would return three years later for Death Wish 3, a no surprises extension of the Kersey narrative that followed the trends of an evolving action genre, particularly those of the Cannon group as they neared the apotheosis of mainstream cinema’s transparent Cold War muscle-flexing.
Death Wish 3 is not nearly as offensive as its predecessor. This is still Michael Winner we’re dealing with, and scenes of graphic rape and unprovoked violence are a given, but watching the movie it is impossible to become offended on any serious level. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that we’d seen it all before, and those who protested previously knew better than to fan the commercial flames a second time. Another reason is the movie’s presentation. Sure, it tackled identical themes in a manner we were accustomed to, but the grubby tone and ceaseless exploitation of its antecedent has been dumbed down dramatically for a glib, tongue-in-cheek affair that ditches the acute concentration on pain for silly, throwaway violence. Either that or by this point audiences were simply desensitised to it.
Paul Kersey: It’s like killing roaches – you have to kill ’em all. Otherwise, what’s the use?
Kersey’s quips are also more lighthearted, his angel of death persona now more in line with your standard action vehicle, a notion emphasised when a group of hoodlums attempt to steal his car. “We’re stealing this car. What’s it to you?” “It’s my car,” Kersey coolly replies. Instead of confronting issues of graphic misogyny we’re left pondering subjects that are much more fun and harmless, like how many bullets a six shooter can hold (a hundred by my estimation). Add to this a cast of hair model extras who have no place in reality and you’d be hard-pressed to feel anything for anyone as folk from all walks of life are gunned down in cold blood. If ever there was a fantasy representation of inner city decay this is it. Even the most racist, opinionated, misguided fool would struggle to label Death Wish 3 as anything but silly. Amazingly, the movie was first announced at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.
This time our protagonist leads by example. As far as I can tell, Death Wish 3‘s Kersey couldn’t give a rat’s arse about anyone, good or bad. Everywhere this man goes he seems to get caught in the thick of it, and you have to believe that, on some level, he purposely seeks out trouble. Kersey can’t turn a corner without running into a bag snatcher or a helpless citizen squirming under the rusted moralities of the urban wild west. Sure, Paul is only too willing to lend a hand, but those he helps invariably end up dead or worse. The amount of supposed loved ones wiped out on Kersey’s watch is no laughing matter, so much so that his series of fickle flings with hopelessly attracted females take on a much darker perspective. When he plants those harmless kisses on his next unsuspecting love interest, he may as well be delivering the kiss of death. But what does he care? Based on his typical approach to women, the man is clearly only after one thing: a shag. This time his love interest comes in the form of a snoopy public defender named Kathryn Davis (Deborah Raffin), whose advances are abused and shrugged off with the same heartless nonchalance we have come to expect.
When we’re first reacquainted with Kersey, he’s on a bus to a town named trouble, his man-of-few-words act buoyed by some nice, grainy shots of the Big Apple and Jimmy Page’s scathing funk score. As usual, Kersey is almost inanimate, expressionless, bereft of human emotion — everything you’d expect from a remorseless, mass-murdering psychopath, though one gets the impression Bronson’s enthusiasm for the role is already on the wane. It’s hardly surprising for a once serious, hard-as-nails actor. Winner sets out to make a caricature of his antihero, and he succeeds triumphantly. Unsurprisingly, Bronson wasn’t too pleased with Kersey’s transition to inner-city Schwarzenegger, so much that Winner showed no interest in returning for Death Wish 4 two years later. Like author Garfield, Bronson didn’t like what the character had become, explaining, “there are men on motorbikes, an element that’s threatening – throwing bottles and that sort of thing – and I machine gun them. That to me is excessive violence and is unnecessary.”
It came as no surprise to Winner, who had worked with Bronson on six movies, only one of which he liked, and of which Death Wish 3 was the most disagreeable. As far as Bronson was concerned it wasn’t what he had signed up for ― which makes you wonder why he returned for the not-too-dissimilar Death Wish 4. Golan was under no such delusions, actively promoting the character’s moral decay. “[Death Wish 3] has rape in it like you’ve never seen!” he told the press on the set of Delta Force. “It’s very strong — like Michael Winner said it’s World War III. It’s the most violent movie I’ve ever seen, but don’t misunderstand me, it’s an anti-violence film.” Okay, maybe a smidgeon of self-delusion.
Bizarrely, Death Wish 3, initially shot in a “crime-infested” area of Brooklyn, was moved to London less than a month into filming to reduce production costs. Since New York and London both had copious Victorian buildings to utilise as location, the transition was smoother than one might expect, Winner deciding on the neighbourhood of Brixton, which, much like Brooklyn of the 1980s, was infamous for its gang culture. It’s a weird titbit that only adds to the film’s sense of chaos and general unreality, because make no mistake about it, Cannon junkie of otherwise, Death Wish 3 is an experience to behold. It’s pure madness.
Drama-wise, the movie plays out like a particularly bad episode of Diagnosis Murder, is so far beyond the realms of fantasy you find yourself chuckling inanely as a vulgar stereotype mourns the rape and manslaughter of his picture-perfect wife. The relish with which such debauch is captured is so predetermined, the lack of meaningful consequence so threadbare it’s absolutely startling all these years later. Winner trivialises abhorrent acts to such an extent it’s amazing the film even exists. If Death Wish 2 exploited rape in a way that demonized inner city minorities, Death Wish 3 makes it just another flip component, a throwaway trope like any other. It’s gobsmackingly vulgar and without repentance. So relentless the crimes and so meaningless the retribution that everyone becomes a potential killer, and in an ironic way the movie ends up being even more perverse by portraying murder as an appropriate collective crusade. The only way to fight gangs is to form one of your own, even if that gang consists largely of geriatrics and token minorities clinging to their gun-toting saviour. It’s a suburban call to arms.
Paul Kersey: I’m going out for some ice cream… this is America, isn’t it?
This time Kersey is recruited by police Inspector Richard Shriker (Ed Lauter) after temporarily being fingered for the murder of his buddy, his angel of death status so far-reaching the very anticipation of his arrival results in a gang-related murder. Previously, Kersey had been let off the hook by law officials willing to turn a blind eye in the name of justice. This time they go as far as using him as an undercover assassin, but not before a scuffle with the chief and a few incarcerated goons who just happen to run the town Kersey will ultimately burn to the ground. While beating up behemoths half his age, our protagonist runs into the wrong inmate, and we’re quickly introduced to arguably the most memorable villain in the series in Gavan O’Herlihy’s red-headed maniac Manny Fraker, a freckled menace who wipes out the latest community in peril with the twisted glee of a flesh Chucky doll. Fraker’s death is one of the most emphatic ever captured by celluloid, the dirty nogoodnik blasted through a second-story window with a bazooka at close range. It’s an absolutely priceless moment in a movie chock-full of them.
Inevitably, Kersey comes to the rescue. Be it a MacGyver-esque series of booby traps or a swift slap in the face, Bronson’s ageing vigilante is always conveniently placed to employ a quick and effective dose of old-fashioned outlaw violence with a macabre creativity worthy of an obsessive serial killer. Knife-tipped planks of wood in the face are mere hors d’oeuvres. Most of the time Kersey carries a hand cannon and blows holes in the backs of unsuspecting hoodlums almost at will, giving a perfunctory air to brutal acts of life-stealing violence. Strolling around without a care in the world, Kersey is looking to add to his tally like a kid on an arcade shooter. He even has the impudence to casually slurp on a popsicle as he strolls among the rubble, offering high-fives to a watching kid who only ever seems to smile when his neighbours are gunned down in their bloody droves (though you have to believe he’d be cannon fodder himself if he was just old enough to grow a bad teenage moustache).
The idea that Kersey could be considered a role model to anyone is completely and deliciously laughable. When it comes to sheer, side-splitting ridiculousness, the film just goes from strength to strength. Soon enough, he’s transformed a peaceable, elderly community into a full-on death squad, even taking to the streets with a Browning M19 machine gun — perhaps a nod to the climatic scene of Sam Peckinpah’s convention-smashing Western The Wild Bunch, a movie that Bronson was once considered for. The level of bloodshed in Death Wish 3‘s final act is so relentless and bereft of consequence the best you can do is sit back and marvel at the industry’s bankrupt morality and inexcusable celebration of street-bound genocide.
Pretty sick when you think about it, but in its own, inimitable way Death Wish 3 is a classic, a gloriously mindless exercise that stops for nobody and apologises for absolutely nothing. Back in the late-80s it was still considered deeply offensive, not only for its dubious societal messages during a time of inner city demonization, but for its unrelenting acts of unjustified savagery, but it’s impossible to take seriously all these years later. In fact, it works brilliantly as pure irony, existing as an ode to the kind of shameless, cavalier filmmaking that just doesn’t exist anymore, the kind that’s somewhat self-aware, but not to extent of the action genre today, which is polished, politically correct, and almost meta in its degree of self-knowing. Winner revels in the almost ceaseless death and destruction like a child glibly burning ants under a magnifying glass. It’s like watching a young boy recklessly orchestrating all-out warfare with a bucket of toy soldiers on his bedroom floor. 83 people die in this movie!
By the end of Death Wish 3, Bronson’s Kersey is no longer the ‘sick man’ originally intended, nor is he a Republican mouthpiece for public order. Instead he’s a mysterious harbinger of death, a murder-enthused perverter of minds, a poison chalice for the plethora of peripheral love interests who happen to cross his path, and a dubious role model for impoverished kids the world over. This is a man without rhyme, reason or conscience — the kind who decimates entire communities before breezing into the sunset without a care in the world. But most of all, Paul Kersey is a hero. Whatever the hell that means.