Wednesday, March 31, 2010

DEATH WISH: A Retrospective

A.K.A. Falling In and Out of Love With A Vigilante

It's possible there may be some mild spoilers in this entry, although I will keep them as mild as possible!

As many of you know, I am super inexperienced in genre film watching to this day. While my appetite for trashy cinema may be high, my naivety may outshine it still. Death Wish is one genre staple I was minutely familiar with. Granted, I was a child most likely when I saw it, and it was probably on some local channel on a Saturday night (fuck, those were the days), but there were still parts of the film that brought back memories of sitting cross legged in front of the old wood paneled Zenith.

This week I sat down with all five (yes, all five) Death Wish films. I realized a few things while watching them. Most notably:

1) Charles Bronson likes ice cream.

and 2) I definitely had not seen any Death Wishes after the first.

So for the unknowing, uninitiated , or even uncaring, here's my general thoughts on this classic pentalogy for better or worse. I'll probably have the most to say about the first film as it is certainly the most artistic of the bunch and probably warrants the most actual discussion as opposed to giggling over giant guns and bullet holes.

Death Wish (1974) was filmed/released at a time when crime in American cities was on an obvious rise and American citizens were beginning to possibly feel the way that the main character Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) actually acts out.  The Bronson/Michael Winner flick was one of several the two worked on together, including the first three Death Wishes.

This film is an interesting look into a liberal man becoming increasingly frustrated with crime affecting him, and increasingly comfortable with solving these crime issues himself. At the time of its release, many critics said the film was exploitative and even dangerous in its message... and certainly the fact that it was a box office hit could have been looked at as a potential problem.

I did though feel like Paul Kersey's transformation in the film was handled rather well. He carries a sock with rolls of quarters in it, feeling exhilarated when he finally protects himself one night with it. When he first shoots a man, it is grisly and uncomfortable. The man writhes on the ground in tremendous pain and Paul runs away scared shitless... all the way home where he vomits at the thought of what he has done. I thought the jump after this into his more comfortably killing criminals was a bit abrupt, but not exactly exploitative, at least not by today's standards. I could see 36 years ago (holy shit) this being more pronounced however.

I've written in the past about this very subject with my review of Enzo Castellari's Street Law. Street Law was definitely at least inspired by Death Wish, and I feel the same here. It is a film meant to entertain, but treading on the ground of reality in a fictional work when dealing with such an incendiary topic can send a dangerous message to viewers. At times Death Wish also glamorizes the vigilante, maybe most at the end as Bronson points his finger gun at some thugs with a big shit eating grin on his face. And as I said in my review of Street Law, seeing this film nearly 40 years removed from the "current," it is easy to separate the message from the entertainment. But taking the time period in context, perhaps it certainly was exploitative.

The author of the novel that this film was based on, Brian Garfield, apparently hated the film adaptation, and too felt it was overly exploitative. So much so, in fact, that he wrote a sequel novel Death Sentence to show the dark side of vigilantism that he feels like the film missed from his first novel.

Garfield has said
The novel, which I wrote years ago as a sort of penance for the movie version of "Death Wish", attempts to demonstrate in dramatic form that vigilantism is not a solution -- it's a problem, and tends to destroy those who attempt it.
Anyway, back to the goods. Bronson was definitely solid here. He's not the greatest actor, often pretty stiff and stone faced, but he commands the screen when he's there. Something about his cool demeanor and look is magnetic no matter what the skill is, which is probably part of his long term success. The Gentlemen's Guide to Midnite Cinema bring up this point about Charles Bronson quite often, and it's very true.

Although in a breaking of his character, I did get a good chuckle at how happy Bronson looked in his apartment while swinging his new quarter-loaded sock around over his head. He was like a little kid.

The supporting characters were all solid for the most part. You get a nasty little appearance by Jeff Goldbloom with a now probably legendary line "Goddamn rich cunts! I kill rich cunts!" Detective Frank (Vincent Gardenia) was a cool character as well, and I really liked his runny nose cold being one of his character traits. It gave him more... um... character? The city of New York in 1970s cinema (this has been said thousands of times) also is a character of its own.

Artistically speaking, this film is far and away my favorite of the bunch. If there is going to be one Death Wish you see, this is quite possible that one... although part 3 may give it a run for its money. Death Wish is definitely thought (and discussion) provoking despite losing that focus somewhat by the end.

Death Wish II (1982) at the same time felt like a rehash of the first story as well as a great example of the contrast between 70s and 80s action cinema. It fittingly takes place in Los Angeles despite my wishes that it would follow the end of the first film and take place in Chicago. This film is the Motley Crue to the first film's maybe Black Sabbath - same family but the former with big hair and makeup.

The main difference plotwise between the two films is the establishment of a particular group of criminals that Kersey is after. I felt the examination of Kersey's experimentation with vigilantism to feel satisfied in the first film was far more believable and interesting than remembering the faces of certain assailants and tracking each of them down. The first film thus leaves you more with the feeling and impact of his decisions and the second with essentially just a collection of vigilante vignettes. Gone completely is the indication that his behaviors are affecting him in any way besides simply accomplishing the task at hand. His actions now seem like those of an addict as supposed to someone who is frustrated. He hides it from everyone, even going so far as renting a seedy hotel room to stage from.

Other notable differences:

  • Herbie Hancock's classy jazz-infused soundtrack in part I vs. Jimmy Page's tacky pre-80s rock soundtrack in part II.
  • More reliance on shocking scenes for impact including loads of gunfire and an extended rape scene.
  • Nasty Jeff Goldbloom is replaced by a corny Lawrence Fishburn. In fact, all the villains in the film are far less realistic and almost characatures of criminals; many felt very over the top.
  • Death Wish II was released by Cannon Films as opposed to Paramount's handling of the first - this alone can explain a lot to those who know a little about Cannon's typical releases 
While the film had a different story, so much of it just felt like the exploitative elements pulled from the first film, polished 80s style, and output to a more standard action film. Bronson's portrayal of Kersey is essentially the same in his down moments except we get to see some really awkward love scenes which really should have been avoided at this point in his career. Vincent Gardenia reprises his role as Frank Ochoa, but unfortunately he still has a cold. I'm not sure why that rubbed me the wrong way, but it was a cool little touch for me in the first film and then just felt unoriginal by the second. Yeah, I get it... he's snotty. Blergh

This film was a complete departure from the ideas set in motion from most of the first film. Standing alone, perhaps I would have liked this film more. It was not terrible, it's nastier and more mean-spirited than the first and certainly more exploitative I would say, but not all that compelling for me either. It's definitely in the middle of the Death Wish road for me.

Death Wish III (1985) takes the excess of Death Wish II, cuts away the worthless fat, blows coke up its ass with a bendy straw, and sends it along its way. I can't really say that in all confidence because we do get more painful Bronson lovemaking, but at least this chick finds the better end of a carsplosion, so we'll let it slide. Sorry for the spoiler there!

By the time III rolls around, we've completely forgotten who exactly Paul Kersey really is. His wife and daughter are dead, and he seems to be just a wanderer at this point. A wanderer with a fetish for guns and a supplier who pulls no punches. He gets a letter from an old military friend in NY describing the decline of his neighborhood and asking for help, and Paul makes the trip.

Oddly, I don't even remember him mentioning that he is an architect, but he did tell someone he was a freelance writer or something, so that's strange.

Death Wish III, another Cannon film, is completely over the top and felt almost a parody of the vigilante genre. Vigilantisploitation? This film has made a complete 180 from where the series started, and thus has a cult following as well... but for obviously different reasons. You're not gonna find a sick Paul here wondering if what he is doing is right. You're gonna find a couple senior citizens (Bronson included as he was 64 or so when he made this film) using machine guns and yes, rocket launchers to dispose of some of the tackiest villains yet. The main baddie Fraker (Gavan O'Herlihy) is the worst yet. He even has this ridiculous reverse mohawk that really only makes him look like a banding man with a failure combover.

And the guy in the gang that you recognize from other shit? We've come from Goldbloom in I, down to Fishburn in II, and tumbled way down the celebrity totem pole here with a nasty Alex Winter a.k.a. Bill S. Preston Esq., although to be fair he would not actually be Bill until a few years later.

Again the villains are comical and one dimensional instead of anything approaching scary. Bronson is really hamming it up as well in his own stoic kind of way. Gone even is the element of suspense of Kersey avoiding the cops, because they essentially recruit him this time.

The body count in Death Wish III is far and away beyond that of the first and even second film, and this is where we are introduced to possibly the gun best associated with the Paul Kersey character, the .475 Wildey Magnum, an absurd hand cannon only topped in the film perhaps by the .30 cal WWII era machine guns, but  really only by the goddamn rocket launcher.

For anyone interested, here is the promotional video for the pistols, riding on the success of the film itself.

Shit, there was even a Commodore 64 video game made of this movie!

As I was watching this, I thought it would be fantastic fodder for an appearance in the Simpsons. And funny enough, I realized soon after that Death Wish had been joked about in a slightly different way. A trailer for Death Wish 9 was shown, a decrepit Bronson lying in a hospital bed saying "I wish I was dead."

Not too far off!

Seek Death Wish 3 out for a shitty flick that is good for all the wrong reasons. It might be my favorite over part I, but I guess it would depend on the mood. The only question raised here is "Is this gun porn or not?"


I'm going to cram Death Wish IV (1987) and Death Wish V (1994) here together because honestly, they are definitely the two worst films of the bunch and I don't feel like writing much more!

Death Wish IV has Kersey infiltrating 2 rival organizations that supply 90% of the drugs to Los Angeles. Yes, we're back in Los Angeles. By the time you've gotten to this film, you can really see how standard they have become. Yes, Kersey is still a vigilante, but the cops are almost a non-factor here. There is a twist in the film wish was good I suppose, but still by the end this film still felt a bit flat. A 66-year old Bronson just didn't have the same oomph he did way back when.

We do get more rocket launcher love and a silly shootout in a roller rink which brought back some fond memories of my awkward years at good ol' Skate Haven, but it was honestly too little, too late. Micheal Winner had moved onto the greener pastures of whatever-the-fuck-he-was-doing and in came J. Lee Thompson of Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone fame, but his attempt at a more serious story once again just fell short. It's too bad because Bronson and Thompson made some apparently solid films earlier in the 80s with 10 to Midnight and The Evil that Men Do. I've not seen either one, but I have heard good things about both.

Part IV loses the magic of III and never gains the introspection and interest of part I, and gets stuck somewhere in between.

Part V was really more of the same. Bronson had wanted to wrap up the series after IV, but I guess was swayed back by a heft paycheck or something. A 70-something action star, however, is quite silly though, and he honestly seemed tired. The poor guy looked like he even had trouble lifting his pistol at times, and the stunt doubles were aplenty.

This film had the most fleshed out villains, which was good and bad depending on your perspective. Having unnamed bad guys certainly had its place in the previous films, but at the same time, the lead villain here Tommy O'Shea (Michael Parks - kind of a real actor version of Rowdy Roddy Piper) was believable and really an asshole.

There was a couple cool action sequences, and I felt that overall this film was better made than the previous couple. But despite this fact, the film probably felt more like a standard action film than any other. I'm not sure if I disliked this or part IV more, but it was pretty boring overall, not really bringing anything new or overly-titillating to the table outside of perhaps a remote controlled soccer ball.

I discussed the different feel between part I and part II/1970s action and 1980s action, and this film falls into the same pattern as it felt definitely more like a 90s action film - more character interaction mixed with the action, indoor shooting action which for some reason seems like a 1990s thing more than anything to me for whatever reason, etc. I realize this is probably obvious seeing as they were actually made in these respective decades... but watching them all back-to-back in rapid fire fashion as I did really lets me notice the changes in style from decade to decade... an interesting transition.

Just as the film was ending and my finger is hovering over the stop button so I can just end it once and for all, Bronson walks off into the factory fog, silhouetted in a bright door, and says "Hey Lieutenant, if you need any help, give me a call." At this point I come full circle. This may seem highly odd after what I have just said about Death Wish V, but this line and scene kinda made me a little sad and I immediately missed Paul Kersey, and really Charles Bronson himself. This film was Charles Bronson's final theatrical appearance before his decline in health starting in 1998 to his battle with Alzheimer's to his ultimate death in 2003 from pneumonia. I'm certainly no expert on his films, but I've grown to be quite the fan regardless. This scene for me just went beyond the movie itself.

So there you have it. Death Wish is a series with ups and downs and ups and downs and maybe a little wrinkly of up by the time it ended, but it's an interesting look at the evolution of a series as well as action films throughout three decades. I enjoyed my time revisiting Death Wish as well as experiencing the others for the first time. While I probably would not care to see 4, 5, and possibly 2 again, these are still genre staples that should probably be seen by cult fans at least once!

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