It’s business as usual for Cannon’s most relentless purveyor of vengeance
Everybody can get behind a good vigilante story. In fact, they don’t have to be all that good. Revenge, vengeance, they’re two of cinema’s biggest and often cheapest commercial draws; as audiences, we lap them up. 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 that we don’t fantasise about it. Someone, somewhere, will inevitably do wrong by us, and it’s 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 prior to the 1970s, the once simplistic genre treading antihero territory by the late 1960s. On US shores it was Clint Eastwood who led the way, his vigilante lineage beginning as ‘The Man With No Name’ in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy”, a character who went against the classic western template of the morally pure hero and the heinous villain, but it was western derivative ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan who updated the formula to a modern urban setting, becoming the blueprint for late 20th century action movie vigilantes with iconic lines such as “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”, precisely the kind of macho fantasy that makes the vigilante theme so appealing in cinematic terms.
Before the likes of Sam Peckinpah muddied the thematic waters, the western genre thrived on the most basic delineations of good vs evil. This 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 who were addicted to crack ― a cheaper, more powerful form of powder cocaine that obliterated black communities irrevocably. 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 their victims. In the media, those victims were portrayed as little more than animals, a faceless scourge motivated by theft, violence, rape, murder, and a whole plethora of undesirable buzzwords connected to the media’s coverage of the ‘crack epidemic’, a narrative that just happened to coincide with the nation’s prison construction boom. Reagan, at least superficially, represented the traditional moral values inherent in classic westerns, proving a dependable public image for a generation horrified at the rise of inner city drug addiction and the inevitable pockets of crime it created. Rather than trying to understand addiction, victims were demonised and prosecuted, judge, jury and executioner, and naturally cinema would follow suit.
Dirty Harry’s most transparent imitator was 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 deplorable home invasion, pumping round after round into America’s no-good street thugs. Bronson had already embraced urban vigilante territory in 1970’s New Orleans set, Italian poliziotteschi flick Città violenta aka Violent City, but it was 1974’s Death Wish that brought him vigilante status on US shores. 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 susceptibility to media bias, but boy was it compelling viewing. It was all so audaciously exploitative, and in an era of extreme movie censorship, astonishingly hypocritical in sentiment.
I can’t do anything. I’m a cop.Richard Shriker
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, 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 put the fear of God in people. Fear is the ultimate outlet for control, discrimination invariably a part of the recipe. As a mainstream vehicle, the Death Wish concept is perfect for spreading those messages. It’s 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 Cold War propaganda 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 fulfilment for those who favour 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 semi-major players during the home video boom, even attracting the likes of Sylvester 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 and long-time collaborator 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 its 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, the filmmaker 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”, not the second amendment poster boy committed so crudely to celluloid. So appalled was Garfield that he would write his own Death Wish sequel, one that set out to salvage a character who was originally penned as a warning against gun-happy retribution. It was mostly in vain. 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 significant success for a company of Cannon’s financial aspirations. With a cumulative worldwide gross of $16,100,000 on a budget of approximately $2,000,000, Winner and his backers had forged B-movie gold, a series of cheapo, money-spinning sequels 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, so scenes of graphic rape and unprovoked violence are a given, but watching the movie it’s impossible to become offended on any serious level. By the mid-80s Audiences were becoming attuned to such overblown violence, and ‘overblown’ is the key word here. If Death Wish II carried an essence of grainy realism, then Death Wish 3 is pure, unpalatable fantasy, a crime thriller so extreme it’s beyond laughable, only serving to highlight the sheer preposterous of the Kersey character and his ceaseless crusade for human disposal. It tackles identical themes in a manner we’re accustomed to, but the grubby tone and breakneck exploitation have been dumbed down for a glib, tongue-in-cheek affair that ditches the acute concentration on pain for silly, throwaway violence.
It’s like killing roaches – you have to kill ’em all. Otherwise, what’s the use?Paul Kersey
Bronson cuts a very different figure too. Kersey’s quips are more lighthearted, his angel of death persona now more in-line with your standard action vehicle, a notion emphasised when a group of hoodlums, attempting to steal his car, ask, “We’re stealing this car. What’s it to you?”. “It’s my car,” Kersey coolly replies, glibly putting them down like rabid dogs. Instead of confronting issues of graphic misogyny we’re left pondering questions that are much more fun and harmless, like how many young thugs does it take to assassinate a 64-year-old man? Or how many bullets can a six-shooter 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, flying around the set like characters in an amdram production of West Side Story infused with enough firepower to take down a warship. If ever there was a fantasy representation of inner city decay this is it. Even the most racist, misguided fool would struggle to label Death Wish 3 as anything more than astonishingly silly trash cinema. Amazingly, the movie was first announced at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. I suppose that’s democracy for you.
This time our protagonist avenges the death of a Korean War buddy with the unmitigated violence of a thousand warring street factions, a tragedy that you have to believe Kersey is partly responsible for. He doesn’t instigate the act, but wherever he goes he seems to get caught in the thick of it, and there are always casualties, good and bad, something that doesn’t seem to register with a character who’s more concerned with the simple act of retribution than preventing the crimes that trigger it. I’d go as far as to suggest that this guy consciously seeks out trouble, loitering in the figurative alleyways with an ominous glint that can only spell disaster for all involved. The mere whiff of this man’s presence is enough to trigger a warzone of incalculable chaos. He can’t turn a corner without running into a bag snatcher or a helpless citizen squirming under the rusted saddle of the urban wild west. At one point he even uses himself as bait before gunning down the preposterously named Giggler with a hand cannon, his stolen Nikon camera a mere prop in the everyday exploits of a deranged serial killer. You think crack did a number on inner city communities? You’re clearly not acquainted with Paul Kersey, a human wrecking ball who demolishes entire projects like a powder keg of unjust reckoning teetering on explosion.
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 dame, he may as well be delivering the kiss of death. This time his love interest comes in the form of a snoopy public defender named Kathryn Davis (Deborah Raffin), a woman whose advances are abused and shrugged off with the same heartless nonchalance we have come to expect from a caricature like Kersey. Davis pursues our unflinching vigilante, whose libido is almost non-existent by this juncture (when your fetish is street-bound genocide motivated by rape and murder, it’s hard to get aroused, I suppose). Before long, Davis gets caught in the crossfire, and by that I don’t mean she catches a stray bullet. In pure Golan-Globus fashion she’s tracked down, brutally attacked and blown to smithereens after her car is pushed down a road into another vehicle ― an astonishingly hyperbolic end for yet another innocent female character. Kersey doesn’t mourn her death either, at least not in any way significant. He’s too busy getting his rocks off the only way he can.
If you haven’t seen Death Wish 3 (and if not I suggest you quickly rectify that), it’s almost impossible to convey the level of carnage on display, the movie playing out like a particularly violent arcade shooter gorging on an endless supply of quarters. The movie’s finale is so egregiously over the top it threatens to enter spoof territory like a gang of flaming bikers heading for an oil refinery. The sheer deluge of dead bodies, street riots and random explosions are positively awe-inspiring. It’s like watching a nuclear warhead explode from outer space. And where are the cops while World War 3 wages on at a breakneck pace that promises the Earth’s total destruction? Absent as always, but in one of many idiotic developments that characterize Death Wish 3 so exquisitely, very much by design this time around.
Kersey has a knack of evading retribution, despite making most sociopaths look congenial by comparison. Cops seem to empathise with him on some level, turning a blind eye to murder based on the horrors he has suffered, though this time the character’s actions are lacking the same level of justification. The murder and rape of siblings, left unpunished, are reason enough for premeditated crimes of passion, but here it seems like genocide for the sake of it. The cops are no better. Rather than simply playing dumb, Ed Lauter’s Police Chief Richard Shriker wants in on the deal, giving Kersey licence to kill as many punks as he wishes on the proviso that he keeps him informed with any gang activity that might lead to arrests. I’ve heard about cops refusing to go by the book, but really?! Presumably internal affairs are just as prone to turning a blind eye in the madcap world of Golan-Globus. The gang’s orchestrator is Gavan O’Herlihy’s red-headed maniac Manny Fraker, a freckled menace who wipes out our 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.
Despite the screenplay’s shift from bare bones exploitation to mainstream action, Bronson’s enthusiasm for the role is already on the wane, something that’s evident throughout. He’s still the same unflinching killer, but less by design, more through sheer apathy towards the material, often giving the impression that he’s simply going through the motions. It’s hardly surprising for a once serious, hard-as-nails actor who attained iconic status in action circles. Winner sets out to make a caricature of his antihero, and he succeeds triumphantly, but Bronson was a different proposition than the era’s muscles-to-burn stars. Unsurprisingly, the actor 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 appreciate 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 had professed to liking, and of which Death Wish 3 was by far the most disagreeable. As far as Bronson was concerned the film wasn’t what he’d signed up for, which makes you wonder why he returned for the not-too-dissimilar Death Wish 4, a film that sees Kersey’s latest squeeze machine-gunned to death in a gobsmacking instance of trivial violence that somehow trumps the demise of Kathryn Davis for sheer in-your-face wickedness. Perhaps he just needed the cash injection. 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.” Sure it is, Golan.
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 costs, something else that no doubt impacted Bronson’s mood, extending the film’s production and as a result his workload. 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 at a time when skinheads and football hooliganism were at their most rampant, racial discrimination as much of a factor in UK politics thanks to Reagan ally Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, mass unemployment stoking the racial fires among the disillusioned working classes. It’s a weird titbit that only adds to the film’s sense of chaos and general unreality.
Drama-wise, the movie plays out like a particularly bad episode of Diagnosis Murder, proving so far beyond the realms of fantasy that 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 premeditated, the lack of meaningful consequence so threadbare that it’s absolutely startling all these years later. Winner trivialises abhorrent acts to such a dizzying degree that you become increasingly desensitized as the minutes fly by in a siege of human degradation. If Death Wish II exploited rape in a way that demonized inner city minorities, Death Wish 3 reduces it to just another flip component, a throwaway trope like any other. It’s staggeringly vulgar and without repentance.
Just as disconcerting is the negative influence Kersey has on the gang’s neighbourhood victims, his suburban call to arms producing more reprogrammed killers than the Vietnam marine corps. He doesn’t dehumanise them or even raise his voice, he merely leads by example, making the likes of R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman look like a rank amateur. Thanks to Kersey’s reckless influence, folks of all walks of life reach for the artillery as the suburbs succumb to mob rule: goodhearted family men, smiling preteens, decrepit geriatrics — no one is sacred from a moral standpoint. He may as well have opened the gates of hell, packed the entire community into a brakeless freight train and careened over the proverbial canyon. In the space of a few days he commits more souls to the fiery pits of ignominy than the devil himself (that’s assuming he isn’t the genuine article).
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 at a fairground shooting range. He even has the impudence to casually slurp on a popsicle as he strolls among the rubble, offering high-fives to a watching tween who only ever seems to smile when his neighbours are gunned down in their bloody droves, appearing with the stilted contrivance of a Days of Our Lives character (though you have to believe he’d be cannon fodder himself if only he was old enough to grow a bad teenage moustache).
I’m going out for some ice cream… this is America, isn’t it?Paul Kersey
The idea that Kersey could be considered a role model to anyone is completely laughable, but therein lies the genius of Death Wish 3. It may offend those who just can’t see the humour in Cannon’s immoral extravagances, but when it comes to sheer, side-splitting ridiculousness, the film goes from strength to strength, all of it leading to what is a contender for the most remorseless finale I have personally ever witnessed. By this point the film’s peaceable cast of mostly old folks have been transformed into a full-on death squad, Kersey and his temporary best bud even taking to the streets with a Browning M19 machine gun — perhaps a nod to the climatic scene of 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 it goes from potentially offensive to pure comedy gold. I haven’t laughed so hard at a movie for a very long time.
I’m by no means advocating some of the themes glossed over by Winner and his crew, but as a gloriously mindless exercise that stops for nobody and apologises for absolutely nothing, Death Wish 3 is a stone cold classic, the kind of lawless creative shambles you just don’t see in today’s super-refined digital environment. It may have the capacity to offend, but rather than delivering a sobering indictment of mankind’s darkest tendencies on any logical level, 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 exemplar 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 an American hero. Whatever the hell that means.