I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Death Wish

After enjoying recent DEATH WISH ripoffs and spinoffs like DEATH SENTENCE and THE BRAVE ONE, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the source, and to see those sequels I never got around to watching. (By the source I mean the first Charles Bronson movie and not the book by Brian Garfield, which is apparently similar but clearly anti-vigilante in the end – that’s why he wrote the sequel Death Sentence, because he was so mad about the DEATH WISH movie.)

Charles Bronson plays Paul Kersey, New York architect, happily married father, “bleeding heart liberal,” Korean War veteran with conscientious objector status. A cool guy. Then one day a gang of hoodlums (including Jeff Goldblum in his first movie role) follow Paul’s wife and daughter home from the grocery store and rape them. Mrs. Kersey dies and the daughter is so traumatized she’s hospitalized in a near catatonic state.

Death WishPaul’s annoying son-in-law (who calls him “dad” way too much for comfort) convinces Paul to take an opportunity to go work on a project in Tucson to get away from it all. Hanging out with ranchers he ends up going to the gun range, where he gets a condescending lecture about how the city wouldn’t be so violent if everybody had guns like out here. When he leaves they give him a gun as a gift. So, uh, that might end up being used for something. Who knows?

Of course Kersey ends up in a one man war against crime, going out late at night waiting for people to try to mug him so he can shoot them with his new gun. It makes him feel good. Strangely, he never ends up tracking down or even trying to track down the dudes who attacked his family. Since this was the start of the urban vigilante formula it hadn’t yet occurred to them that that was a good way to make the story satisfying. Or maybe they just knew it was unrealistic. That didn’t become a part of the formula until part 2.

Obviously nobody likes bullies, and this was at a time when crime was fairly rampant in alot of major cities, so it hit a chord with alot of people. Anybody who ever gets fucked over fantasizes about getting revenge. But the manipulation of the movie is pretty blatant, the way it openly states that Kersey is a “bleeding heart liberal” and basically says that all his values were wrong and now he knows since his wife was killed.

Being made in a more sexist era the portrayals of his wife and daughter are pretty embarrassing to look at now. Obviously an attack like this is deeply scarring but the wife seems to die of fear and the daughter quickly reverts to the mental state of a little girl. She’s even that way years later in part 2. It’s reinforcing this fantasy for the Tucson ranchers that women are helpless little fragile waifs and that a man’s primary job in life is to violently protect them from other predators.

If the movie wanted to really make the vigilantism argument credibly it wouldn’t have to stack the deck the way it does, with the hoodlums being these silly cartoons who run around hooting and giggling and randomly attacking people for fun. If that’s the way the filmatists see street crime then you gotta figure they’re just paranoid, they wet their pants every time they see a longhair or a black guy, then run home and tell their friends they just barely dodged a gang rape. This movie definitely exploits our basest and most paranoid instincts. (I mean jesus, check this out.)

But you know what? I still dig this movie. Bronson is so good at these type of characters that I accept him more like he’s a real guy who went a little crazy in a bad circumstances than as thinly veiled audience manipulating right wing fantasy time. So I forgive him. And for such exploitation the filmatism is pretty classy. The elegant and sometimes funky score by Herbie Hancock goes a long way toward making it work. Apparently director Michael Winner’s girlfriend gave him the Headhunters album and convinced him to get Herbie. Good job Michael Winner’s girlfriend at the time(aka Maria from Sesame Street).

And although the movie seems to be coming out on the side of vigilantism, you gotta acknowledge that there is some ambiguity there, the way at the end Kersey has completely lost it and he starts spouting cliches from the western stunt show he saw earlier. To me it seems to be saying that what he’s doing is at least in part inspired by that blatantly fake world – rehearsed, lipsynched, acted out for tourists. And maybe that’s why he takes his chance to leave New York instead of dying or committing suicide like alot of people would after a crazy rampage like that. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t really have a death wish.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Saturday, February 23rd, 2008 at 10:32 am and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

29 Responses to “Death Wish”

  1. Bronson was so good in everything he did. I recently saw 10 TO MIDNIGHT, one of the Golan-Globus productions from 83′ I think. It’s fairly standard in that he wants to catch a serial killer, but with little quirks that make it unique. The killer has to be nude when he kills for one thing, and the endings pretty good. Worth seeing.

  2. We all know someone’s bound to remake this in the near future. It’s too recognizable a title to escape the machine. So if it’s inevitable, a small contingent of knowledgeable individuals such as ourselves should have a say in casting.

    I’m going with Nick Nolte. Discuss.

  3. Nah, the cool thing about Bronson is that he’s kind of a normal, intellegent guy in the first film. It’s obvious he’s a badass but he doesn’t flaunt it, he wears a suit most of the movie and really pulls off the idea that he’s kind of a quiet, thoughtful guy who just snaps at his sense of powerlessness against the forces of evil. Nolte isn’t going to be as sympathetic or believable as a normal, well-adjusted, happy husband (although he’s be good as the vigilante).

    If they must remake DEATH WISH (andI fear you’re right that it’s inevitable), I suggest they go more in the spirit of the book and cast a sort of neutral everyman in the role (it was originally going to go to Jack Lemmon, apparently!). You can’t out-man Charles Bronson, it simply cannot be done. Maybe they could do one of those fancy Hollywood honorary casting deals like with SLEUTH and make Jeff Goldbum the new Vigilante? If not that, the only thing to do is do what they did with Bronson in the first place and take some lesser-known older tough guy and give him a major starring role. Rutger Hauer, say, or Delroy Lindo or something.

  4. See, part of my wanting cast Nolte was so they could hose him down and clean him up for the beginning of the movie. Put a tie on him, comb his hair, give him a shave. Nolte used to be believable as a romantic lead, remember. There’s got to be a charming older gentleman buried under all that crazy. Then by the end of the movie he’s a snarling fiend for vengeance, which we all know will be beyond awesome.

    And they kind of already did the average joe becomes a vigilante thing in Death Sentence (which I’m sure you’re aware was based on the book that Death Wish 2 was not based on). If they’re going to remake Death Wish, remake fucking Death Wish. Put a tough guy in a suit and try to make me believe that he’s a bleeding-heart liberal. Then give him a gun and let his true nature shine through.

    I was thinking Rutger Hauer, too, but he’s just a little too cold for the role, I think.

  5. Oh fuck, I just realized that Ed Harris would suit both of our needs perfectly.

  6. Ed Harris HELL yeah. If Ed Harris were out on the street with a shotgun I wouldn’t fucking break the rules of a game of solitaire.

  7. Couldn’t they cast any of these people in a crazy revenge fantasy, not call it Death Wish and keep everyone happy? I would agree with Harris, that guy is so under utilized in movies. He shows, reminds everyone that he is better then pretty much anyone else, then disappears again. Seriously, Ed, do more movies. I love you.

  8. Of course they could, and I’d be all for it. But they won’t. They’ll remake DEATH WISH because, you know, it’s a movie that exists.

  9. True, true. Strange days we’re living in.

  10. Watched this for the first time last night, overall thought it was pretty great. Oddly enough I thought the “oh you knee jerk liberal” stuff was so blatent that watching now it seems almost as if it’s mocking them, rather than criticising Kersey. I doubt that was the case, but it did add a more anti-vigilante slant to the film for me. Funny how times change things. Oh and what a badass closing shot the film had, seriously cool.

    I don’t know if you know this Vern, but over in the UK Michael Winner has minor celebrity status as a refined english gent/food critic, who also sells car insurance. In his adverts (he directed them himself) he’d be involved in some minor car accident, the woman driving the other car would start trying to get his attention and he’d say “calm down dear, it’s only a commercial”. I can’t find the original on youtube anywhere, but here’s an annoying dance remix someone made:


    He’s also recently began a TV show called Michael Winner’s Dining Stars, where he gets invited to a dinner party, and then afterwards scores them on it. He acts kind of like a cross between Gordon Ramsey and Simon Cowell, just being a complete dick, but everyone bows to his every wish because he’s the expert/one they want to please. So yeah, it’s really fucking bizarre to see this guy and also know that he directed many action films starring Charles Bronson, I didn’t believe it at first and just assumed they were two different guys with the same name.

  11. GoodBadGroovy – The way I hear it, Michael Winner is an ultraconservative asshole, so I doubt those jabs at Kersey were meant as anything but a mocking of his pansy liberal tendecies, before he decides to SPOILER man up. On the other hand, I think Bronson does a good job playing his liberal side as just as manly — so much so that when people mock him for it, they seem ridiculous. He’s obviously already comfortable with who he is (he doesn’t even feel the need to argue the point with his asshole co-workers) that it’s not like the usual archetype where a wimp becomes a man by learning not to fear the gun. It’s almost more that this nice, well adjusted guy loses his humanity and his ability to empathize with anyone who challenges him.

    Again, I think Winner thought he was making the opposite point, and maybe Bronson did too (I don’t know anything about his politics). But the framework of this type of vigilante movie was new and I dont think they quite figured out how to make it look as acceptable as movies today do. Case in point: he never kills Jeff Goldblum. He goes around murdering unrelated people as a means of catharsis. Nowadays, when they make it personal they assure you he’s going after the people who wronged him. Seems kind of saner.

  12. Bronson was pretty much pro-vigilante, I believe, at least when the first film came out. When someone first told him the plot of DEATH WISH, his reply was, “I’d like to do that.”

    “The movie?” asked the other person.

    “No, shoot muggers.”

    Then there was his on Johnny Carson promoting the film where he came right out and said that if anyone fucked with his family he’d kill them. Johnny laughed at first, but Bronson wasn’t joking. Don’t fuck with his family or he’ll kill you. End of story.

  13. Reminds me that story which Alex Cox (REPO MEN) related about how when the set of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST found out that RFK got shot, Jason Robards was openly crying while Bronson was clapping.

  14. hi,
    currently sitting and watching DEATH WISH for the first time and need to seriously vent about the son-in-law referring to Kersey as “dad” in every breath. My god how did this dialogue get past first draft, writers meetings, rehearsals, shooting and editing. Did they not notice how incredibly unrealistic, uncomfortable and brain-crushingly annoying it was. If they do remake, please, please, please remove all the “dads”.

  15. Just re-watched this tonight , because I’m in a Bronson mood . This was right after The Mechanic and Once Upon a Time in the West ( my god , Claudia Cardinale was hot!) . One thing I didn’t remember of Death Wish was the soundtrack , and my god is it good . It’s a slow start , it’s not a kick in the nuts like Pelam 1 2 3 , but when it picks up during the movie , you notice it and it’s beautiful , without stealing the show , without overshadowing the images . In that regard , it’s one of the best soundtracks ever.

  16. I just love the director’s name. I can picture the studio head right now, excited over a new project, “We’ve got another Winner!”

  17. Here’s the commerical referred to a few posts up


    I don’t know why, but for some reason it reminded me of this…


  18. Michael Winner died today. A divisive personality in the UK to say the least, and certainly not the most technically gifted director, but I for one will miss him.

  19. I will miss the 70’s Winner, that’s for sure.

  20. RIP Michael Winner. I enjoyed a number of his films and his occasional smackdown of TV arseholes.


  21. I just thought I add a link to the original German poster in here: http://www.filmonpaper.com/posters/death-wish-a1-germany/


  22. That looks like the perfect paperback cover.

  23. A MAN SEES RED, huh? It’s callad that in Denmark too. In Norway it was named NÅDELØS BY (RUTHLESS CITY).

  24. It did?

  25. If Bruce doesn’t sport a mustache it will seem incomplete.

  26. There are plenty of ways they can make a decent film out of this. Everyone seems to forget that Winner’s movie pretty much falls apart in the third act. But why does every Bronson remake that comes along have to star a baldy? The man WAS hair!

  27. I think they should cast jesse Eisenberg as Paul hersey as young KID. he was bullied in school, until one day he had enough. DEATH WISH; THE WONDER YEARS

  28. Remember that Bronson didn’t age in the same way as the rest of us. He was forty when he played a young man in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and worked as a police officer until he was 78 in FAMILY OF COPS III. He also beame a father in that movie! So Eisenberg can maybe play Kersey when he went to kindergarten, but that’s about it.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <img src=""> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <b> <i> <strike> <em> <strong>