Death Wish 3

Dir: Michael Winner, 1985. Starring: Charles Bronson, Martin Balsam, Deborah Raffin, Ed Lauter. Action.
Death Wish 3
The first three Death Wish films can easily be categorized as the good, the bad, and the ugly. The first one was a good, quality piece of exploitation pulp. The second is bad because it was dull and boring. The third is the ugly and isn’t ugly usually more interesting? In this case, it is. Death Wish 3 could be called bad because it’s so ridiculous and over the top but that’s also what makes it so good—it’s ridiculous and over the top. And any resemblance to the realism of the first film has been totally thrown out the window and now plays like a cartoon spoof of the vigilante genre. And forget the later Death Wish flicks to come; still starring Grandpa Charles Bronson, Death Wish 4: the Crackdown and Death Wish 5: the Face of Death, they are utterly forgettable and worse, unwatchable. But the middle child, Death Wish 3, is something special in a lovably ugly dog way.

In the first flick, Death Wish back in ’74, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) was a respectable NY architect, but when his wife was murdered by some savage street brutes he became a stone cold vigilante, knocking them off. While less credibly in Death Wish II, Bronson was in LA and got all killy again to avenge the memory of his maid. By the time 3 begins he seems to be a guy who just casually kills goons at will. Hoping to take a relaxing vacation in the projects of Brooklyn by visiting his old war buddy, he arrives to find his friend dying, having just been beaten to a pulp by the local street creeps. The cops arrest him for the murder; after giving him a working over, Chief Shriker (the great B-movie actor, Ed Lauter of The Longest Yard) cuts a deal with him, letting him go if he will go knock off some of the ‘hood rats (a multi-racial gang of central casting punkers, biker types, and “Beat It” dancers).

Bronson stays in his pal’s pad, hooking up with the terrified neighbors to take back the building, including WWII vet Cross (Martin Balsam, one time great Actor's Studio character actor, in the slummy phase of his career), as well as a sweet Puerto Rican couple and a pair of elderly Holocaust survivors. When he’s not busy setting booby traps and teaching them how to kill the thugs, the 60-something Bronson finds time to be seduced over wine and homemade pasta by the hot, young public defender Kathryn Davis (Deborah Raffin); but of course after a nice dinner in the ghetto she is killed. When Bronson successfully starts cutting down the creeps, their leader, the pasty new waver Manny (played by Gavan O'Herlihy, who briefly played Richie’s older brother Chuck on Happy Days before the character was written off the show) calls in for reinforcement—a big, sloppy motorcycle gang (similar, but less credible than the one in Dawn of the Dead) with high-powered machine guns and grenades, who don't mind running down old ladies. This leads to the ultra-violent showdown; Bronson’s mail order magnum gun arrives, he and the neighbors have a shoot-out with the creeps full of explosions, vengeance, and many gleefully gruesome deaths. A happy ending!

Though exploitive, the original Death Wish was part of a serious film movement in the 1970s that depicted an urban jungle of paranoia turning the everyman into a vigilante (if you can consider the stone-face and ultra-masculine Bronson an “everyman,” a role rumored to have once been considered for “Mr. Everyman” himself, Jack Lemmon). There were also the vigilante cop flicks (Dirty Harry) and the vigilante Vietnam vet (Taxi Driver), all respectable and even acclaimed flicks. Though the western genre was full of vigilantes (High Plains Drifter, Ox-Bow Incident, The Wild Bunch), Death Wish opened the floodgates for every kind of vigilante sub- genre... from extreme junk (The Exterminator, Vigilante Force ) to pop trash (Class of 1984, Ms. 45), superheroes (the Batman and Punisher films), the highbrow, feminine slant (Sally Field in Eye For an Eye, Jodie Foster in The Brave One), futuristic (Mad Max), and Korean madness (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance). There've also been some reexaminings of the whole genre with the overrated Michael Douglas flick Falling Down, the excellent Michael Caine thriller Harry Brown and the underrated Death Sentence (which was based on a book by Brian Garfield as a kinda sequel to his earlier book Death Wish).

Director Michael Winner’s career is symbolic of the whole genre. He started off as a perfectly respectable British director of forgettable B-movies (The Nightcomers, The Games, etc.) then he became Bronson’s go-to director (making solid actioners like The Mechanic). Death Wish was their fourth film in a row together. But then he made the famously bad super-dud Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood and it was all downhill. He would helm plenty of bad flicks including the barely released O.J. Simpson action epic Firepower and The Wicked Lady which officially announced the end of Faye Dunaway’s reign as a major leading lady. In between flops he revisited Death Wish with the first sequel and finally Death Wish 3 which would prove to be the culmination of any talent or skill or subtlety being lost forever. The same could be said about Bronson; after credible supporting performances in the ‘60s with major filmmakers like John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape), Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) he had his breakthrough lead hero performance in Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West. By the ‘70s, though he was now a big action star, he had mostly stopped working on the A-list circuit and stopped growing as an actor. By the ‘80s he had become an older caricature of his former self and Death Wish 3 plays like a take-off on his former glory.

The highlight of Death Wish 3, the great scene, is when Bronson takes a late-night stroll for ice cream through this horrible neighborhood (ironically, most of the movie was shot in London, sitting in for NY). He carries an expensive camera to lure the creeps; one known as the Giggler takes the bait, grabs the camera. Bronson drops his Fudgsicle, pulls out his laughably giant handgun, and shoots the guy in the back. If that’s not enough, the rational, good people of the ‘hood step out of their doors and pop out of the windows and begin cheering for him. You see, Bronson isn’t some kind of sadistic serial killer (though the body count he leaves in his path may make it look that way) but actually, Bronson, his furry mustache, and his big gun are inspirational uniters of the community, just doing a little harmless street cleaning.
Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 6, 2012 6:05pm
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