Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Death Wish — following the on-going killing spree of Paul Kersey, a liberal pacifist architect who is transformed into a gun-toting vigilante after his family is attacked by muggers. The series stretched over five films from 1974 to 1994.
The Installment: Death Wish 3 (1985)
Creeps Dealt Bronson Justice: 40
The Story: Death Wish was 1974. Death Wish 2 was released in 1982 but took place only four years after the events of the first film, putting it at 1978. Death Wish 3 was released in 1985 but takes places ten years after the events of the first film, which puts it at 1984. So we’re almost up to the present again!
Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is returning to his old shootin’ grounds of New York City to visit his buddy Charley. And wouldn’t you know it, the very day Kersey arrives in town three punks break into Charley’s apartment and beat him to death. Then Kersey is grabbed by the cops, who mistakenly think he killed Charley, and thrown in a holding tank where he first crosses paths with the interestingly coiffed Manny Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy), who coincidentally happens to be the leader of the gang that killed Charley. Police Chief Shriker (Ed Lauter) figures out Kersey’s true identity (he’s been using the name Kimple) and surprisingly makes a deal with Kersey — he wants Kersey to take up his vigilante ways and clean up some creeps. Kersey happily obliges. He returns to Charley’s apartment building, where he befriends the other elderly residents, particularly a WWII vet named Bennett (the excellent old school character actor, Martin Balsam). Now Kersey begins taking back the neighborhood with the help of his buddy Wildey, a .475 Wildey Magnum (a giant handgun actually invented for hunting big game). Oh yeah, and he gets a rocket launcher too.
What Works: It is almost impossible to separate a movie like Death Wish 3 into “what works” and “what doesn’t.” As straight cinema the movie is slap-you-in-the-face terrible, with zero redeeming qualities (other than maybe offering some nice sized roles to senior citizens). Yet the film is also kind of amazing. It is kitsch. But it isn’t camp. Nor is it so-bad-it’s-good. It is slightly too knowing for that. Yet, somehow, it also isn’t tongue-in-cheek. Death Wish 3 belongs to the same bizarro group of exploitation cinema as Commando — movies that are just so ridiculous and off-the-rails over-the-top that it is almost as though they’ve pushed the very framework of their genre so hard that it broke and now all we’re left with is some ethereal vapor of unquantifiable mad terrible genius.
I likened Death Wish 2 to Rambo: First Blood Part II for the ways it evolved (or rather devolved) from the first film, completely rebooting what kind of franchise we were going to be dealing with. And continuing in this trajectory, Death Wish 3 goes totally Rambo III on us. Director Michael Winner returns to the series once more (Bronson kept going to the mat for the man; good friend that Bronson was), and has now dropped the last remaining shreds of legit dramatics present in the first film. Death Wish 3 feels like the movie a group of middle-schoolers who loved Death Wish 1 and 2 would have written during a Mountain Dew and Fun-Dip binge one lazy summer afternoon — it is the playground Star Wars sequel you and your friends acted out that was comprised of nothing but lightsaber battles and Chewbacca ripping fools’ heads off. Death Wish 3 is all the “fun stuff” and none of the “boring stuff.” Out the window is character development. In the trash goes Kersey’s inner conflict. Under the fuckin’ bus goes any semblance of realism. To watch Death Wish 3 is to stare into the face some Lovecraftian beast; it is indescribably great and horrible, and it will roast your very mind.
Point being… everything and nothing works in the film. So I’m just going to talk about the film in this context. Basically I’m going to be talking about how awful the film is. But you’ll know I’m saying it with the utmost love.
Bronson is now in his mid-60’s, and though he is looking old, it is a testament to the man’s health that Martin Balsam was only two years old than Bronson, but is playing an completely different generation (a WWII vet versus Kersey’s Korean war vet). Kersey as a character felt adrift in Death Wish 2, but that’s just cause the movie was conceptually torn between Death Wish and Death Wish 3. In 2 he was pointlessly rebooted, having given up his vigilantism, only to be sucked back in immediately. Not here. Though Kersey denies it briefly, it is revealed that he’s been chillin’ and killin’ in the years since Death Wish 2. And the man fucking loves it. The glee with which he dispatches creeps in Death Wish 3 is part of the fun. Sure, objectively it makes him sort of a reprehensible psycho, but this is the Paul Kersey we were promised in this final shot from Death Wish…
This Kersey follows the logic given by Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, when Vega says it would have been worth his vintage car getting keyed if he could have caught the asshole who did it. You get the impression that Kersey is kinda happy Charley is dead and this building full old folks is being terrorized, because now it gives him an excuse to wash the streets with Travis Bickle rain. Once he receives his Wildey in the mail (he also receives his rocket launcher by mail; who is mailing him this shit?), he is just so smugly happy about entrapping some creeps with some bait and then blowing them away. “I think I’ll go down the street and get some myself ice cream. This is America isn’t it?” And he playfully sets up a series of deadly booby-traps around the building like he’s starring in some whacked out 90’s John Hughes movie — Nursing Home Alone.
This is a classic “one man army” film. 40 creeps. Kersey kills 40 fucking people in this movie. And that’s just my reasonable estimate. During the climax of the film, when he has a machine gun, it isn’t always easy to keep a clean count going. Of course, your hero is only as good as your villain. With Kersey turned up to 11, the street punks need to match him. Now we have a whole army of creeps. And in perfect dumb 80’s fashion, this well-organized mass – in the sense that they have a clear leader and follow his orders to the death – has absolutely no plan or clear motive. Obviously they want to rule this shitty little neighborhood, living off a protection money racket. Yet the level of mayhem and murder they’re always dealing out is obviously not sustainable. They’re frankly a lot more like a cult than a gang, drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid that cult leader Fraker is handing out. Fraker makes no sense as a character either. In some incredibly lazy screenwriting, Fraker commences his vendetta against Kersey while they’re still in the jail holding tank. But why? It’s almost like he knows who Kersey is, but he doesn’t. He just pointlessly has two goons attack Kersey, then gets really offended when that doesn’t work out as he planned, vowing that he’s going to find Kersey later and kill him. The entire jail cell scene feels like a nightmare sequence from a silly comedy, full of poorly chosen moments to implement a fish-eye lens and some monkeyhouse arch overacting from the cell extras. Speaking of Fraker, Gavin O’Herlihy is some terrifying combo of Jake Busey and William Atherton. He also has an inverse mohawk, which is incredibly stupid looking.
There are so many little bits to mention in this film it is hard to even get them all. Like the young black kid who periodically appears to cheer when Kersey wastes some creep, yet is never introduced or developed as an actual character. Or the tangent where Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Deanna Troi gets Death Wished (ie, breasts exposed, then raped, beaten), and sent to the hospital only to suddenly be dead when Kersey and her husband arrive to see her. “But you told me over the phone she only had a broken arm?” Why? Why not just have her already be dead to begin with? Or the goes-no-where “love story” between Kersey and a far-too-young public defender (Deborah Raffin) who admits she kind of wants to be a vigilante, and then gets punched in the face by a creep and sent unconscious into a fiery car-wreck.
The ‘Old West’ motif from the first film is now back again, which Michael Winner “discretely” lets us know by pulling the camera in on an ‘Old West’ painting on the wall. Death Wish 3 falls into the Western subgenre of films like Shane, in which an outsider is embraced by a beleaguered community unable to save themselves from the dicks in their midst. Kersey is given room and board, he’s fed by a nice old Jewish couple, and though the two never actually share a real scene together, that cheering little kid certainly feels like kid from Shane, as far as youthful idolization goes. And Fraker and his creeps all wear war-paint, which obviously gives them an “Indian” vibe, but they function more like your standard Western land baron and his army of thugs. The neighborhood feels very much like a small town from a Western, where our beleaguered citizens all own and operate shops just a stone’s throw from where they live. And like any good Western, the whole film is building up to the big shoot out on Main St. Of course, our hero has a machine gun here. Before the climax Kersey has killed about four creeps. Then he kills thirty six. And that’s just him. He’s also helped from other members of the neighborhood, and Chief Shriker — who has an unintentionally meta moment when he shoots a creep who had the drop on Kersey and says, “I owed you one, dude.” This was clearly meant to be a Western tinged line (we shouldn’t forget that’s where “dude” originally came from), but the moment takes on a different meaning post-1985 when you realize that the creep he shot was Alex Winter, aka Bill S. Preston, Esq. from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, who helped popularize the mainstream use of “dude.”
What Doesn’t Work: I now feel sorta bad for slagging off Jimmy Page’s score from Death Wish 2, because at least that was cheesy fun. That score belonged in Death Wish 3. Page’s music for this installment is just boring synth nothingness. Where is all the embarrassing guitar wank?!
While there is an undeniable unintentional-laughter factor involved, I found the use of obvious dummies in all the falling stunts disappointing. For one thing, I think Death Wish 3 is actually at its worst in its so-bad-its-good moments. It succeeds most winningly when it is simply going for beyond-broke with total investment. This was the 80’s guys! This was the heyday of dangerous stuntwork! I want real bodies falling through the air, people!
Most Egregious Creep Moment: Killing an old lady, then calling her husband at work to tell him he better rush home because she’s dying. That’s bad enough, but the fact that she’s already dead just makes it even more dastardly. Why not just say, “Hey, your wife is dead.” Why give him any hope?
Best Bronson Kill: 40 to chose from, and the easy choice would be killing Fraker with the rocket launcher, but that happens off-screen. I have to give it to the booby-trap consisting of a spring-loaded board with a knife attached to it, which some unlucky creep gets right to the forehead. I think this kill best represents the silliness of the film.
Best Creep Dialogue:
Random Creep: They killed The Giggler, man!
Fraker: They had no business doing that. None.
Best Bronson Dialogue: “It’s like killing roaches – you have to kill ‘em all, otherwise what’s the use?”
Was Justice Satisfactorily Handed Out: Uh. I guess? Sure. The citizens seemed happy.
Should There Have Been A Sequel: At this point why ever stop until Bronson retires or dies? Old Man Death Machine has got my money.
Up Next: Death Wish 4