I recently was on a business trip out west and found myself stuck in a hotel with no transportation and nothing to do for an entire evening. After praying, reading, taking a nap, swimming in the hotel pool and blogging, I finally decided to see if there was anything on television. What I got was a Death Wish marathon. Why not? Why always review summer blockbusters and new releases? Why not something old and classic? In this review, we'll take a look at the ups and downs of the Death Wish series with its iconic vigilante hero, Charles Bronson.
The Death Wish series had a long life-span: five movies between 1974 and 1994, an amazing run that kept Charles Bronson fighting criminals and getting in fistfights with thugs at age 73. It is beyond the scope of this review to look at each movie individually; rather we will talk about the themes of the series in general, where it succeeds, where it fails, and examine the perennial popularity of the series.
The basic theme of Death Wish is vigilante justice. Each of the five films deal with situations in which legitimate law enforcement is either unable or unwilling to deal with powerful criminals who act with impunity. In the first three films these are petty thugs; in Death Wish 4 and Death Wish 5 it is organized mafiosi. Our protagonist is architect Paul Kersey, a conscientious-objector from the Korean War who dislikes guns and abhors violence. Nevertheless, when his wife is murdered and his daughter raped by thugs in New York, Paul struggles to reconcile traditional moral convention that crime must be handled by legitimate authority with his own burning indignation that too often law fails and criminals go unpunished. "Sometimes the law works!" a friend tells him in Death Wish V, urging restraint. "Sometimes the law doesn't work," Paul responds. This theme runs throughout the films. Take this dialogue in the original Death Wish between Paul and his son, Jack:
- Paul Kersey: Nothing to do but cut and run, huh? What else? What about the old American social custom of self-defense? If the police don't defend us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves.
- Jack Toby: We're not pioneers anymore, Dad.
- Paul Kersey: What are we, Jack?
- Jack Toby: What do you mean?
- Paul Kersey: I mean, if we're not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when they're faced with a condition or fear, do nothing about it, they just run and hide?
- Jack Toby: Civilized?
- Paul Kersey: No.
In the first film, we see Paul deal with the death of his wife by becoming a vigilante killer. He has no targets in particular in the first film; he simply corners petty thugs he encounters on the street and shoots them dead, becoming a criminal in his own right but also a local hero to the people of New York who are glad that "somebody is finally doing something" about the crime problem. To fight crime, he must become a criminal. This is the paradox explored in the Death Wish films.
In the first two films this paradox is thoroughly explored and we really get an experience of the moral dilemma Kersey faces as a vigilante killer. Kersey himself struggles with this dilemma; in the first film, for example, we see him vomiting in disgust after his first killing, appalled that he has taken a life. This moral struggle was what made the first film in particular such a hit and so controversial (it was banned in many places and turned down by various studios because of its message); what do we become when we become killers in order to stop killers? Is it ever justified to take the law into one's own hands? Unfortunately, the moral premise of the film is lost early on in the series; in Death Wish 3, we see Charles Bronson mowing down dozens of thugs with a World War II 30 caliber Browning machine gun without any sort of remorse or second-guessing and in Death Wish V he shoves someone into a vat of acid; clearly he has gotten comfortable with killing, as did the script-writers. Over the course of the series we come to just expect the retributive killing from Paul and he transforms into a kind of vigilante Rambo, which is somewhat laughable because of Bronson's advanced age.
In Death Wish IV and V we see Paul taking on organized crime syndicates, and Paul becomes more of an assassin than a vigilante killer. Instead of simply shooting bad guys, we witness him blowing them up with hidden bombs, poisoning them, or as mentioned above, dumping them into acid. By the fourth and fifth installments the storyline has become stock (it is common knowledge that if you are Bronson's love interest in any of the films, you are dead); the writers try hard to come up with new twists on the same theme, but they get stale by the end of the series. The first two movies will give you a lot more to think about. The third one is interesting because it brings the community into the picture; instead of Paul fighting crime alone, he rallies an entire block to stand up against the aggression of a violent gang and we see the potential of a communitarian approach to vigilantism, complete with one of the most prolonged, outrageous gun battles in cinematic history at the climax of the film. The fourth and fifth movies are just rehashes of the same old theme with run-of-the-mill thugs swapped out for mobsters and Paul devising new ways of killing them since he is getting a bit old for the real physical stuff. If I were going to watch any, I'd say the first three are worth it. Four and five are alright, just not as original or interesting.
There is some things to watch out for. Several of the films contain rape scenes that are disturbing, even if there is no nudity. The violence can sometimes be brutal. In Death Wish 3, the antagonist Manny Fraker boasts that he is going to "kill a little old lady", and several scenes later we see him leaving behind an old woman in her chair with her throat slashed open. In Death Wish V, a hitman smashes the face of Paul's love interest through a window, gravely disfiguring her. Because most of this is the 80's the wounds look fake at times and sometimes people get shot and no bullet wounds appear, but still, if you are watching Death Wish, you're going to get a healthy dose of violence. In fact, violence is necessary to make the concept work; if the bad guys did not commit over the top acts of brutality, we would not feel sympathy with Paul when he blows them away. And if Paul was not blowing them away, what kind of film would we have left?
But this is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me. When violence is used as a means to get us to reflect upon a greater question, and provided it is not needlessly gory, I can deal with it. In these films, the violence fundamentally leads us to ask how we can be a society that values life and justice if the people who deprive others of life and justice are allowed to go on living? Is there really hope for remediation of the criminal mind, or as Paul says in Death Wish 3, should criminals be treated like cock-roaches that need to be exterminated? To what degree ought our justice system aim simply to protect versus to inflict retributive justice? When does a specific crime cross the line to the point where we say that it merits death, and if the legitimate authority in incapable or perhaps too corrupt to see justice is done, what is the common man to do? What do good men do when evil prevails and justice is denied?
I personally have always found these movies enjoyable on a very basic level. They are not the most profound things you will ever watch, but they are entertaining, and at least the first two (maybe three) give us food for thought. Plus, Charles Bronson, even old, comes across as such a bad-ass that it's hard to not cheer a little bit watching him blow punks away with his trademark .475 Magnum, or whatever firearm he happens to be packing at the moment. Whatever our take on the questions of justice and retribution, there is something satisfying about seeing justice done Bronson-style.
I give the series overall 2/3 tiaras. Had the series ended with film two I might have given it 3/3; maybe 2.5/3 if it ended with Death Wish 3. But the inclusion of Death Wish IV and Death Wish V in the series brings the overall rating down a bit.