Charles Bronson in Death Wish.
Death Wish is the ultimate revenge fantasy. Virtually a 90 minute advertisement for the NRA, it's the kind of movie that generally sparks a visceral reaction from its viewer; either in favor or against it. No matter what your view, it's hard to argue that moral judgment aside, this is an entertaining film.
Charles Bronson stars as Paul Kersey, a New York City architect in 1974. He's a self-described bleeding-heart liberal and family man. His life seems fairly idyllic until one day his wife is murdered and his daughter sexually assaulted by a group of muggers (including a very young Jeff Goldblum). His daughter is so traumatized by the incident (which is shown rather graphically) that she becomes comatose.
Following a trip out west, Paul returns to the city and decides to get his revenge for what happened to his family. Not revenge on the group who actually attacked his family (they're never seen again), but rather on the city itself which has produced their ilk. Paul then goes on a one man killing spree, stalking subway trains, dark alleys and parks, using himself as bait to draw criminals to him where he can murder them.
The fact that this movie was such a hit at the time of its release is partly because it was a product of its time. New York City in the 1970s was a very different place than it is today. The Bronx really was burning and the city faced bankruptcy. Crime was on the rise and white flight to the suburbs had been going on for years. To New Yorkers, seeing a middle class, tax paying citizen taking back the streets from the gangs and the muggers must have really struck a nerve. Sure, the city shown here is an exaggeration (Paul finds crime so easily that no city with so much could possibly continue to function) but it's close enough to reality to be believable.
Essentially the plot is that of a western moved to a 20th century city. The plot would be mundane had it featured John Wayne in Dodge City where a man strapping on a six-shooter to avenge a loved one was commonplace, at least according to Hollywood. It's only because of the setting that the plot seems shocking at all, or rather seemed shocking. It's since been imitated so many times that it's lost its edge.
The original 1974 New York Times review of Death Wish stated that, "...it's a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers." Clearly their critic was taking this movie too seriously. It's a fantasy, but obviously one that their liberal critic found distasteful. Although just why he refers to the movie as bigoted, leaves me scratching my head as the killers and many of the muggers who are shown being killed are white.
At under 90 minutes this is a fast paced and rather gripping film that it doesn't pay to over analyze. It's not serious enough to be taken seriously, but it can entertain you if you let it.
Recognize the mugger on the right? It's Denzel Washington making his movie debut in Death Wish.
Actually Scott, the majority of Kersey's victims are black, which is odd since, as Scott wrote, his wife's killers are white. They even mention it during a cocktail party scene. One guest brings up the fact that race seems to play a part in the vigilante's murderous rampage. A woman responds with this racist line, “That's because more muggers are black. Are you suggesting we should have more white muggers to achieve racial equality among muggers?” WTF?!
Charles Bronson was 52 years old when he made this movie. His weathered mug shows every year of it but he is incredibly fit for a guy on the shady side of 50. He brings a bit of depth to the role. The fact that Paul Kersey is a self-proclaimed liberal with no history of violence adds some complexity to what could have been a very one-dimensional part.
The entire cast is filled with familiar faces from the seventies as well as soon to be famous faces. Scott mentioned Jeff Goldblum (this was his movie debut) as one of the freaks that kills Hope Lange (while shouting, “Cunts! I kill rich cunts!”) but this was also the first movie Denzel Washington ever made. He was uncredited as one of the muggers in an alley. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, better known as Freddie 'Boom Boom' Washington on Welcome Back, Kotter, also plays a mugger. Christopher Guest and Olympia Dukakis both get a scene apiece as police officers, and Helen Martin of 227 fame plays the old lady that fights off two muggers (both of whom are black) with a hatpin.
As a time capsule of the crime ridden 1970s Death Wish is pretty hard to top. It also proved to be prescient of things to come. On December 22, 1984 Bernie Goetz notoriously shot four (alleged) muggers on a number 2 train in Manhattan; something that Paul Kersey did ten years earlier in this movie.
Death Wish was a big hit at the box office. It relaunched the career of Charles Bronson who would eventually return for four sequels. Viewed today it's incredibly dated but remains a compelling movie.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1974)