Open-minded architect Paul Kersey returns to New York City from vacationing with his wife, feeling on top of the world. At the office, his cynical coworker gives him the welcome-back with a warning on the rising crime rate. But Paul, a bleeding-heart liberal, thinks of crime as being caused by poverty. However his coworker's ranting proves to be more than true when Paul's wife is killed and his daughter is raped in his own apartment. The police have no reliable leads and his overly sensitive son-in-law only exacerbates Paul's feeling of hopelessness. He is now facing the reality that the police can't be everywhere at once. Out of sympathy his boss gives him an assignment in sunny Arizona where Paul gets a taste of the Old West ideals. He returns to New York with a compromised view on muggers...Written by
The newspaper headline, "Vigilante Kills Two in 42nd St. Subway Station," appears onscreen well before the scene where Paul Kersey actually shoots two muggers in the 42nd Street subway station, the incident referred to in the headline. See more »
Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs is Uncredited Mugger. This has been mistakenly reported/claimed as Denizel Washington, time and time again. It is not Denizel Washington, it is "Welcome Back Kotter" star Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs. See more »
The UK version classified in 2006 by the British Board of Film Classification retained the 18 certificate, but all of the BBFC's previous cuts were waived. See more »
Perhaps "Death Wish" is unquestionably the best vigilante film ever made. It's not the action-packed thrill-fest that movies like "Kill Bill" or "The Punisher" seek to be, instead it's a haunting, sometimes intoxicating look at our society's views on justice.
Charles Bronson is Paul Kersey, a New York architect whose wife is killed by a group of muggers ransacking their apartment, an attack that also leaves his daughter catatonic. The killers are never caught, and Kersey is left shattered.
He takes a job working for a land developer in New Mexico to get his mind off his troubles, and while there his long dormant fascination with guns is renewed when his client Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) shows off his personal collection and lets him crack some shots off. He also witnesses a live reenactment of an Old West shootout, where frontier justice was administered at the end of the gun.
Kersey soon arrives back in New York, livened up a bit from his visit and ready to resume his life. But the streets are still filled with thugs, and Kersey knows that Manhattan is not the best place to be at night. He discovers that Jainchill has given him a .32 revolver as a present, and subsequently uses it to kill a man trying to mug him. Kersey soon realizes the cathartic release of enacting vigilante revenge as the media reports his killings and other private citizens take action, all while police officer Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) leads a task force to capture the vigilante and stop future violence.
"Death Wish" was a product of its day -- a Nixon-era knee jerk reaction to rampant crime that turned out to be quite a hit. But to dismiss it simply as that would be to deny the film its true power. It asks the question of whether or not vigilantism can be used as a social good, and just how can a citizen properly defend himself from criminal attacks. More importantly, to the movie's credit it does introduce the downside of vigilantism, with Ochoa worrying that people will be whipped into such a frenzy that they'll start attacking anyone who looks suspicious.
The movie does play it safe when it comes to Kersey's "victims" however. Every one of them is clearly a mugger, threatening his life or just wanting his money. But the movie does enter into ambiguous territory by looking at the actual actions Kersey takes. At first he just stumbles into traps set up by muggers or happens on a crime taking place; later on the other hand it's clear that he's actually inviting attacks by making himself a target. And the self-defense aspect of his actions becomes equally cloudy when he kills muggers that are already fleeing. He wants to punish them for their crimes, which itself can be morally troubling.
But to understand "Death Wish" you had to understand the times. Murder rates were very high in New York City, and many muggers had little problem killing their victims. The criminals in the film are not overly sympathetic either, most of them clearly hippies or other social undesirables, probably hooked on drugs from their "free love" days and now stuck in the bitter reality of narcotic dependency now that the good times are over. It's hard to feel sorry for someone willing to kill you just for a couple hours worth of pleasure. I'm sure the movie's audiences in New York, and probably across the country, enjoyed living out their revenge fantasies vicariously through Kersey.
It should be said that Bronson, normally criticized as a wooden actor, gives a remarkably strong performance. This may be due to his friendship with director Michael Winner, who also helmed several of his other films. But it's probably due to the fact that the movie was not written as an action hero vehicle, and because of this the story demanded a character more grounded in reality. Kersey is not a superhero -- he's just one man trying to make a difference in the world.
Also, he's not all there, either. The movie makes it clear that Kersey is a little deranged as well, and one wonders just how far he might go to do what he thinks is right. The sequels were more interested in making him out to be an infallible crusader against evil, abandoning any pretext of social commentary and just offering body counts, but here at least the movie shows that someone willing to go on a shooting spree isn't quite right in the head, regardless of the guilt of his victims.
Supporting roles are excellent as well. A very young Jeff Goldblum nails his performance as one of the muggers who invades Kersey's apartment, immediately scary and repellent. Gardenia is a nice foil for Bronson, making Ochoa an intelligent officer not unsympathetic to Kersey's crusade, especially when he sees how the crime rate plummets following the killings. Christopher Guest, who would go on to star in hit mockumentaries like "This is Spinal Tap," "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind" has a small but memorable role as a police officer towards the end of the movie. In fact, everyone does a good job.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of "Death Wish" will probably rely both on your politics and views toward crime. It's a movie where the critic is judged based on his review, which is just as well I suppose. It's at once fascinating, and still very timely.
Nine out of ten stars. Bronson's best solo movie and certainly a very thought-provoking piece, which is lost on both people who only want to watch it for the mugger killings and those who just dismiss it a fascist trash.
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