As I mentioned when reviewing the 1990 Night Of The Living Dead remake, I did my best to watch as many of the movies leaving my Netflix Instant cue on July 1. There were 20 and I only got through three and a half (I gotta get my hands on Robinson Crusoe On Mars so I can finish that fun 60s sci-fi flick), two of which were these Death Wish sequels.
I’ve talked a lot about how my dad introduced me to a lot of 70s and 80s comedies featuring SNL cast members, but he was also into the vigilante movies of the 70s, specifically Dirty Harry and its sequels. Along the way, I’m sure we talked about Death Wish, but I didn’t have a firm grasp on what those movies actually were until I watched them in the last few years.
Basically, the first two movies are raw revenge-fests featuring a man pushed to the edge by the murder and sexual assault of, first, his wife and second, his daughter. I tried watching Death Wish II in the past year and couldn’t get through it because it’s just so intense and bleak. A lot of that comes from the plots that never really let up, but also from Bronson’s grief-stricken performance. There’s got to be something to earn such mass amounts of vengeance, right?
And then you have Death Wish 3 which is insanely bonkers. In this one, Bronson’s Paul Kersey returns to New York (the location of the first film) to visit an old buddy who winds up getting, you guessed it, murdered by street punks. Turns out, these kids are total psychopaths living on the streets and running their own little kingdom of terror and crime, so Kersey decides to stick around and do his best to clean things up. How does he go about that? By helping his elderly neighbors set up eviscerating booby traps and laying into gang members with the gigantic gun seen in the poster.
The tone of this movie is all over the place. On one hand, there’s the very real and scary nature of being an elderly person trapped in a place that seems to have gone completely wild. The kids playing the gang members — including Bill & Ted‘s Alex Winter — all go over the top, but it fits if you buy into the world being set up, it’s just that we’re being shown an insane world. I’ve got to give huge kudos to Gavan O’Herlihy as gang leader Fraker who is just so darn creepy and charismatic that he reminds me of Dirty Harry‘s excellent villain turn by actor Andrew Robinson.
And then there’s Bronson. I think my love of him as an actor is pretty well documented in my reviews of The Mechanic, Mr. Majestyk and 10 To Midnight, but there’s just something off in this one. He seems almost deranged at times as he cracks jokes about murdering teenagers, evil as they may be. I guess it would make sense given how much the character has gone through, but it’s a very difficult attitude to relate to.
There were a few other things that made me shake my head. For one, the soundtrack is by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, one of the greatest guitarists of all times and it’s…just the weirdest. I think his score actually lends a lot to the film’s odd tone because it just doesn’t fit some of the time. There’s also a lot of strange gunplay going on that doesn’t make much sense. Kersey shoots that machine gun into huge crowds with most of the people running away. Other gunfights take place about five feet from each other and no one gets hit, but the worst is when cops roll in, hop out of their cars and stand IN FRONT OF THEM where they can be more easily murdered. Still, compared to the previous two Death Wish films, this is the kind of over-the-top, crazy movie that can actually be enjoyed instead of survived.
That trend continues into the next film Death Wish 4: The Crackdown which is, not surprisingly, about crack and cocaine. In this one, Kersey’s back in LA dating a new woman whose daughter overdoses, sending our hero vigilante on his crusade. This time though, things get more complicated when, after successfully killing the drug dealers, Kersey gets offered the opportunity to take out the larger operation and two gangs in the process thanks to a mysterious benefactor.
This one feels more grounded, but also features a good deal of twists and turns that kept me interested. There are some weird things with the editing. In one scene, Kersey’s infiltrating a factory that doubles as a drug den. One of the thugs sees him snooping around, but doesn’t get to him until AFTER he opens the secret door, shoots a bunch of guys, throws a bomb inside and then runs away. There’s also an added chuckle factor when you see some of the 80s-tastic interiors.
I don’t have as much to say about this one because it’s a lot more straightforward, but I did get to thinking about Kersey’s psyche. On one hand, we see him have a seeming break from reality in 3. He’s getting a lot of enjoyment teaching old people how to maim and even more from killing (well, as much joy as Bronson lets through his stoney face). But then in 4 he’s back in a seemingly solid relationship and having a nice time with the woman and her daughter. With that in mind, he’s basically the most optimistic guy in the world, right? “My first wife may have been murdered and my daughter may have been murdered and my best friend may have been murdered, but I can still find people to love and care about.” Aside from all the murder, he’s actually kind of a great role model that way.