DEATH WISH (1974)
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Death Wish is a classic film and one of the most renowned for legendary star Charles Bronson before Cannon Films turned it into an overblown franchise. The grim tale is of Paul Kersey (Bronson), a successful NYC architect with a beautiful daughter (Kathleen Tolan) and a loving wife (Hope Lang). The crime rate in the city is rising and it hits home for Kersey as a group of thugs (including a young Jeff Goldblum) targets his wife and daughter. His wife is beaten to death and his daughter brutally raped to the point of being non-responsive. The peaceful, former combat medic then changes his liberal thinking and takes to the streets to teach the criminal element a lesson…one bullet at a time.
The film is based on a book by Brian Garfield and written for the screen by Wendell Mayes. Michael Winner was chosen to direct, having worked with Bronson before on The Mechanic and The Stone Killer. Winner has a very by-the-numbers directing style and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing as anything flashier would have taken this into exploitation territory, which it skates quite close to already. The scene of the thugs assaulting Kersey’s wife and daughter is still as brutally effective as it was back in 1974 and it gives us reason to be behind Kersey when he starts slimming the NYC mugger population. The scenes of Bronson stalking the streets are effective, as is the turmoil inside the NYC police department when they realize someone is doing their job with far more brutal efficiency. There is obviously violence and Winner does give the NYC streets of that era a very desolate look at night, where danger does lurk on every corner. If the film stumbles, it’s for an over-obvious trip to Arizona that introduces Kersey to a community not afraid to bear arms and even has him returning to NYC with a gift of a six shooter. It’s a big plot contrivance to get Kersey armed and in kill mode and thankfully the film settles down to a more down to earth second half when Kersey becomes a vigilante folk hero cleaning up the streets. Racial issues are touched on briefly, but not made a major issue and the script does lay out some sequences and dialog that seem a bit corny at this point in time. There is an effective score by Herbie Hancock and Arthur J. Ornitz captures the urban jungle quite nicely with his camera work. A film that resonated with audiences at a time where NYC was more known for it’s crime wave than it’s Broadway shows.
The cast is top notch. Bronson does the stone-faced performance that he is famous for, though does give Kersey some heart especially in the early scenes with his family and the aftermath of the attack. He takes the tough guy thing down a few notches, so Kersey is believable as a normal family man driven to drastic measures for revenge. Hope Lang paints a portrait of a loving wife and mother in her brief screen time, and it helps makes us sympathetic to her cruel end. Vincent Gardenia is the NY cop caught between catching a killer and the political backlash of the vigilante lowering the crime rate. Steven Keats is also effective as Kersey’s son-in-law and conveys his heartache well. Some future stars also appear as muggers, such as the before mentioned Jeff Goldblum, an uncredited Denzel Washington and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who would become a star in Cooley High and on Welcome Back Kotter a year later.
Death Wish may be a little dated, especially since the NYC clean-up of the early 90s, but it’s strength still remains. It’s a story of an average man driven to desperate acts to avenge the brutal crimes randomly committed on his loved ones. It portrays NYC as a crime ridden jungle with Bronson doing what he is a film legend for and stalking the stalkers. Sure, some of the dialog is corny, and it can be a bit over obvious too…especially the contrived Arizona scenes…but is still an effective thriller even today and has the guts to not give its story a neat and clean ending either. Death Wish spawned a bunch of imitators, including the trash classic The Exterminator and its own franchise that brought Kersey and his guns out for four more movies. Now there is talk of a remake.
Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) bullets.