Death Wish, Charles Bronson as vigilante killer Paul Kersey.
Something about vigilante movies speaks to audiences, and for me it's an easy thing to piece together. Watch the news, read the paper, and it seems all you see is stories of murders, shooting, rapes, violent attacks...and this is 36 years later. Crime is everywhere, and for better or worse, police forces all over the country can't put a criminal away for every crime committed. Are they limited by laws as to what they can and cannot do, or can they just not do all the work that's required to get the job done? Enter the Vigilante, who isn't limited by laws, regulations, or even principles. They do what at some point, just about every person has thought about doing. No arrests, no trials, just kill the bad guys in the act and be done with them, making the world a better, safer place.
Vigilante movies have been around as long as movies themselves I'd wager, but they went through a rebirth in the 1960s and 1970s as audiences looked more for anti-heroes in their movies. Death Wish was one of the most successful as it showed a civilian vigilante -- not a cop like Eastwood's Harry Callahan -- cleaning up the streets his own way. It's the first of many, including Scorsese's Taxi Driver (another classic) two years later and even more recently with The Boondock Saints movies. But Death Wish was one of the first, and even 36 years later, it's still easy to see why audiences were drawn to this simple, effective vigilante story.
A successful New York architect/planner, Paul Kersey (Bronson), gets a call one day at his office saying that his wife and daughter have been attacked in their apartment. At the hospital, Kersey finds out his wife died soon after the attack, and that his daughter is in a nearly comatose state after being raped by her three attackers. Kersey retreats into his life, not sure what to do with himself. The police have no luck at all finding the three attackers, and slowly the anger begins to flow through Kersey. Cautious at first, he starts to seek out the thugs and muggers prowling the city streets. He becomes good at it though, and soon the bodies start to pile up. A special police force headed by Det. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is formed to find this vigilante killer, but an odd thing starts to happen. Dubbed simply 'the Vigilante,' he becomes a hero and more importantly, crime starts to drop dramatically. Is Kersey then really such a bad thing?
In the early 1970s, director Michael Winner made a handful of movies similar in their dark tone and bleak outlook on life, with Death Wish probably the most well-known. This is a low-budget movie with a cheap look and no frills whatsoever to take away from the vigilante story. There are no big sets, no huge action sequences, or a blaring soundtrack. Nothing distracts from the guts of the story. Even the scenes of Bronson's Kersey gunning down baddies are handled in an almost matter of fact way, as if they didn't want to call attention to them. Kersey is doing what he believes is the right thing to do, and stylish 70s action sequences be damned. New York City has never looked so dreary as it does here, with the city looking like one huge, rundown, crime-ridden place.
One of my personal favorite actors, Charles Bronson delivers probably his most well-known performance here as Paul Kersey. It's an interesting part that can be looked at as two separate characters. One, the family man trying to cope with the death of his wife and the suffering of his daughter. Two, there's a man pushed too far by the idiocies of modern society who decides to do something about it. Kersey doesn't even go vigilante until halfway through the movie. Maybe the first half of the movie isn't the most exciting thing, but it's needed to make the second half worthwhile. When he does go vigilante, I'd wager Bronson has about 10 lines the rest of the movie, letting his pistol do his talking for him. It's a great part for an underrated actor in my book.
Bronson dominates the movie with Gardenia's NYC detective the only other cast member that makes much of an impression. Ochoa is a veteran cop told by his superiors to catch this rogue vigilante at the same time he's told crime is down because of this vigilante. He's not quite comic relief, but there is an awkward, bumbling quality to Gardenia's cop. Character actor Stuart Margolin does have a small but memorable part as a business associate of Paul's who helps bring back his extensive knowledge and ability with firearms. Also look for a young Jeff Goldblum as Freak #1, one of the three rapist/attackers in the beginning.
Americans were fed up with just about everything in the 1970s and in a way, Death Wish allowed them to think about what could be different if just one man took a stand. There's a surprisingly effective commentary about our modern culture and weakening of our society as crime and criminals take over. The success of this flick inspired four sequels -- each one progressively worse than its predecessor and all equally enjoyable -- but this one is clearly the best. It is a sparse, minimalist look at one vigilante who is fed up with the world. At just 93 minutes, it is fast-paced and builds to a great ending, one of those perfect last shots.
Death Wish <----trailer (1974): ***/****