Dec 3, 2019


1974’s Death Wish, directed by Michael Winner, is nowadays considered a minor classic. While it achieved only a modicum of critical success, it certainly landed much better with audiences and was a box office hit (none of which the pitiful Eli Roth remake from 2018 managed to do). Death Wish was one of the last of the guy-in-a-suit-with-a-gun films of the 1970s, which were a temporary stopping point between the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and the gloriousness of the 1980s. These ’70s comprised guys like Clint Eastwood, Roy Scheider, Lee Marvin, and even Walter Matthau, domestically, and blokes like Michael Caine, internationally, all doing their thing with a single pistol tucked somewhere between their tweed sport coat and their brown turtleneck. Physically, the men were rather average — even scrawny — and so they depended on their performances to exude intimidation rather than ludicrous musculature. 

Also born during this era was the realization that Charles Bronson, despite his tiny-uncle-like stature and his strange anonymous hybrid of ethnicities (dude looks Mexican, Asian, and Native American all at once), was a remarkable bad-ass. Though he never achieved the same level of critical acclaim as his fellow suit-wearing bad-asses, as he often fell victim to just playing Charles Bronson on-screen, his name is one that often comes up in conversations akin to old school action flicks.

Given Death Wish’s financial success, you might think that a sequel was inevitable, but you must remember that during this era, sequels weren’t nearly as commonplace as they’d eventually become. Death Wish 2 was actually one of the first sequels to be made in what would eventually become a very marketable franchise. It’s also the worst sequel in the series. Based on the finished film, it’s clear Death Wish 2 was eager to hit all the same beats as its predecessor without too much deviation. And its version of Paul Kersey (Bronson) was eager to get to his vigilantism, this time not even giving law enforcement the chance to fail him before he slipped on his knit hat, grabbed a revolver, and took to the streets — this time hunting down the actual punks responsible for the defilement and death of his daughter, hereby eschewing the “any punk’ll do” mentality that gave the original film its voice.

As tends to happen with franchises, the Death Wish sequels were very silly (though not incrementally – Death Wish 3 out-sillies them all), but unlike most other franchises, these sequels barely resembled the groundbreaking first film when the series was only halfway through. This unexpected tonal change in the Death Wish series very much mirrors that of the Rambo: First Blood series, in that their increasingly absurd entries succeeded in not only becoming so removed from their first films’ original ideals that they barely resembled each other, but also somehow established a precedent of cartoon violence for which those series would ultimately be known. As far as Death Wish goes, this can be likened to the involvement of the legendary Cannon Films, who produced all four sequels, and who are responsible for perhaps some of the most iconic B-action films of all time.

Death Wish 2 is the grindhouse entry of the series. It’s grimy, slimy, violent, and discomforting, courtesy of the returning and controversial Michael Winner. For those unfamiliar with the deceased British director, he was the 1970s/80s version of Michael Bay: his talents were hardly ever commended, and not many good films can be found in his filmography, but he always turned a profit for studios, so they were eager to keep him employed. In an almost spiteful reaction to some of the critical drubbings he received on its predecessor, he ups the cruelty for the sequel: the rape scene lasts longer, with more graphic detail and softcore flourishes, and with the added taboo of the victim being mentally handicapped. It also ends in her equally graphic suicide. The reactionary violence perpetrated by “mourning” Paul Kersey that then unfolds results in more bodies dropped, right down to a completely unrealistic mano-a-mano finale set within a hospital (which allows for a small role by Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers).

Death Wish promotes private justice!” those 1974 reviews stated with condemnation. Winner responded with his middle finger that he later nicknamed Death Wish 2. 

And then there’s Death Wish 3, again helmed by Winner, and considered by many to be the standout of the series for just how ridiculous it is. It’s the equivalent of a live-action “Itchy & Scratchy” cartoon — a hyper-violent marriage of Grumpy Old Men and Home Alone that includes a third-act extended finale where more time is dedicated to people dying than people not dying.

Those people who call Death Wish 3 the series standout are kind of right…depending of course on how seriously we’re considering the rating system. Because Death Wish 3 is kind of a masterpiece. It’s Charles Bronson meets Merry Melodies. It’s an unabashed series of vignettes in which people are killed in extremely disparate ways, loosely connected only by one common thread: they deserve it. Kersey knows they deserve it, the audience knows they deserve it, and the audience wants Kersey to make it rain bodies. And by gosh, does he ever. While the previous two Death Wish films, each in their own ways, wanted to make killing ugly, and revenge conflicting, Death Wish 3 wants you to eat your fucking popcorn and enjoy the carnage, you assholes. Out of sight is any commentary or sense of confliction. There are no warring minds re: revenge versus justice. Kersey barely needs a reason to begin unpacking all of his weapons of mass destruction. Evidently he can’t wait to do it. He’s no longer haunted by the change that’s taken place inside him, turning him from mild-mannered architect/widower to a nonplussed bachelor/accomplished killing machine. His ease at life-taking has come to define him. In previous Death Wish films, the vigilante murders had been committed in response to the frustration spurred by feelings of helplessness; in Death Wish 3, they are cathartic release. They are the unleashing pent-up blue balls of a mentally exhausted neighborhood so beaten down and regressed by daily victimization that rioting in the streets and blood in the gutter is tantamount to ejaculatory celebration. To come away with the message “violence isn’t the answer” at film’s end, where Kersey grasps his suitcases and heroically marches down a street littered with flaming cars, dead bodies, and screaming police sirens — it’s the lone rider leaving that Old West town at sun-up — is to embrace your delusion. Death Wish 3 makes one thing very clear: violence works — works well, works often, and should be utilized for every possible conflict.

Death Wish 3 so changed the overall tenor of the series that there would be no returning to semi-respectable ground, which is why the remaining sequels don’t hold a candle, either in terms of being a rock’em sock’em silly time, or of actually attempting to be engaging, thoughtful films. But the Cannon Group, enjoying another hit, obviously had dollar signs in their eyes and typically premature Death Wish 4 posters floating around in their brains…

Following the “disaster” (read: genius) that was Death Wish 3, a minor shake-up occurred behind the scenes as Death Wish 4: The Crackdown moved ahead without series director Michael Winner. The why of this is unclear. I’ve seen this attributed to Bronson refusing to work with the director ever again after Winner had allegedly secretly shot additional violent inserts on Death Wish 3 while the conscientiously objecting Bronson wasn’t on set. Another story had Cannon claiming that Winner simply wasn’t interested in further sequels (which will seem suspect soon). Whatever the reason, replacing him was J. Lee Thompson, a far better filmmaker (he directed the original Cape Fear, for one) with whom Bronson had previously worked six times, and with whom he would collaborate twice more following Death Wish 4 for an overall total of nine films. (One of these is the bonkers Bronson crime thriller/slasher flick Ten to Midnight, which is required viewing as far as I’m concerned.)

Being a Cannon Films production, Death Wish 4 is still pretty silly, but following the gonzo previous sequel, there’s at least an effort on behalf of Thompson and screenwriter Gail Morgan Hickman, who had written the Thompson/Bronson flick Murphy’s Law, to ground the Death Wish world back in reality. Although this is called Part 4,  the events of Death Wish 3 go largely ignored, and I can see why. If one’s goal with Death Wish 4 is to adhere to a more realistic world, best not mention the time your lead hero literally killed an entire neighborhood of painted, unionized punks.

Death Wish 4 thankfully feels different from what’s come before, although it still embraces the silliness that would come to define most of Cannon Films’ output. Retired from the vigilante life and living with his replacement wife and daughter, Kersey embraces his old deadly ways when his nu-daughter is killed by drug dealers thanks to her shady, drug addict boyfriend. But this time, instead of taking to the streets and murdering any punk he encounters, Kersey is embroiled in a mystery — one that has him infiltrating two competing drug operations and serving up some serious Yojimbo-style double-cross, all at the request of his mysterious benefactor (played by Cannon go-to guy John P. Ryan).

Thankfully missing from Death Wish 4 is the grit and grime from the first two films. Also thankfully, it’s a sequel that preserves the “let’s have fun!” mentality from Death Wish 3, which was quite honestly that sequel’s only selling point. As mentioned, Death Wish 3 had so changed the trajectory of the series that there was no reverting back to the path of the original’s respectability. Death Wish 4 pretty ably straddles that line between actually showing off an engaging plot while trying new things, but also blowing up chunky looking dummies that had, just seconds before, been real, living character actors. (And I love a good dummy.)

Following the release of Death Wish 4, Cannon Films was sold to Pathé, and the Golan-Globus cousins were fired. Golan soon joined 21st Century Film Corporation, who immediately kick-started the redundantly titled Death Wish 5: The Face of Death, the worst sequel in the series since the second entry and the film that Golan hoped would save the ailing company. (It didn’t.)

Death Wish 5 is the most bizarre entry in the franchise, even if the mainstay of Kersey the vigilante remains its chief narrative hook. Again enjoying a quiet life (this time under a new name) with his new girlfriend Olivia and her daughter Chelsea, shit goes sour when Olivia is killed and Chelsea is kidnapped by a maniacal mobster named O’Shea (Michael Parks). Complicating the matter is that O’Shea is Chelsea’s biological father, so the cops (one of whom is played by a generally terrible Saul Rubinek) can’t do anything about it.

Enter the vigilante.

Bronson was 72 when he made Death Wish 5, which was the main dig most critics got in when the critically savaged sequel was released — that the aging action star was far too old to be engaging in something so silly and violent. Not only that, but much of the sequel feels cheap, offering the kind of small scale environments prevalent in direct-to-video features. There are very few city exterior sequences, which had been a stalwart of the series up to that point. The actual cities of New York and Los Angeles had become part and parcel with the stories being explored in those entries; sorry, I have to say it: they became characters. Death Wish 5 was the series’ only Canadian production, and it’s evident that director Allan Goldstein was eager to hide this whenever possible.

Death Wish 5 offers a fair share of entertainment strictly on two terms: the presence of Michael Parks, who absolutely excelled at villainy, and the lunacy involved with Kersey’s murder methods, whether they be remote-controlled soccer ball bombs or poisoned cannolis borrowed from The Godfather III. Beyond that, Death Wish 5 has absolutely nothing else going for it — even the presence of an aging, puffy-faced Bronson, who had been completely over the Death Wish franchise since Part 2, is a serious bummer, because you can tell he’s not at all into it — and, as the critics noted, definitely showed his age.

Director Michael Winner, who helmed the first three Death Wish films, once said, “I’d have Charles Bronson starring in Death Wish 26 if I thought it would make a profit.” From the point of view of someone strictly looking for a silly, B-movie good time, I’ll say it’s a shame that the series ran out of steam far before that projection — that is, of course, assuming that some of those never-to-be sequels would have reached the same lunatic heights as seen in Death Wish 3. Because at that point, there was no turning back — no sense in trying to end the series before it jumped the shark, because that shark had most definitely already been jumped. So long as Bronson had been willing, I’d have easily taken 21 more entries in spite of how terrible the last official sequel had been. Over Charles Bronson’s storied career, he made far better films than the original Death Wish, but the long-running vigilante series would eventually define his career. It’s a shame this was the final theatrical note on which he had to go out.

No comments:

Post a Comment