Death Wish: Revisiting the Violent Revenge Fantasy of the 80s

Death Wish made Charles Bronson a star. Death Wish 5 gave him a check. But were the movies any good?

This article originally appeared at Den of Geek UK

New York, 1971. Someone has slashed open the canvas roof of Brian Garfield’s convertible. His immediate reaction was to think “I’ll kill that son of a bitch!” as he prepared for a long, cold drive home in the snow but, being a man of words rather than action, he didn’t make good on his threat. He just wrote about it. A legend was born.

Garfield, usually an author of pulp westerns and thrillers, was inspired to craft a different kind of novel. 1972’s Death Wish is the story of Paul Benjamin, a wronged man who enters a similar moment of homicidal rage and never comes out of it. When we first meet Paul, he’s a mild-mannered accountant who donates generously to charities and considers himself a liberal. Then one day, robbers break into his flat, murdering his wife and beating his daughter into a coma. Unable to cope with his grief, Paul buys himself a gun and starts taking out his anger on the muggers of New York.

While the concept is tantalizing, Garfield’s approach is neither as lurid nor as articulate as perhaps it could be, which might explain the modest sales of its initial print run. The prose lacks gravitas and never breaks free of its pulp trappings, yet the story’s too measured to be a full-on thriller. Paul doesn’t get his gun until the final third and there’s not a lot of action even when he does. It certainly doesn’t read like a novel that would suit a screen adaptation and studios at the time thought the same way. In addition to not being naturally cinematic (much of the book is an internal monologue), many potential buyers felt that a story in which a homicidal vigilante was the hero would be too provocative and unpleasant for audiences to stomach.

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The rights did eventually sell, but only as part of a package deal with another Garfield book (Relentless, later made as a TV movie). Oscar-nominee Wendell Mayes wrote the screenplay, yet even with a prestigious name in tow, getting the project greenlit still proved difficult. After many dramatic rewrites and personnel changes, Michael Winner’s finished film of Death Wish was released in 1974 and unrecognizable to its original creator. Brian Garfield was not happy. “It sucks,” he moaned to his agent as they left the cinema. “Yeah,” the agent replied. “But it’s gonna make a ton of money…”

Spoiler alert: It did.

In the movie, Paul Benjamin becomes Paul Kersey, played by rugged 54-year-old screen legend Charles Bronson. Since Winner didn’t believe anyone could buy Bronson as an accountant, the character is made an architect. Paul’s daughter now gets raped as well as beaten (by a young and super-creepy Jeff Goldblum, to make it even more horrifying) and the body count increases once the guns are out. The film has a pervading atmosphere of violence and is loaded with a crude, vicious profanity sometimes delivered so rapidly it sounds like a beat poem.

That said, while it’s hardly a subtle film, the underlying message is arguably addressed more skilfully than in the book. It’s smarter than it looks. Garfield makes most of his points via a clunky chapter of exposition in the form of a hypothetical psychiatric analysis, whereas the film foreshadows its themes from the very first scene and builds on them from there (Paul and his wife about to have sex on a Hawaiian beach but deciding to go back to the hotel room because they’re “civilized,” then Paul lamenting “I remember a time when we weren’t…”).

The scenes where Bronson (a former Western star) visits an Arizona town devoted to hyper-violent reenactments of frontier shoot-outs may feel like a witty little meta gag but also helps tie together the film’s thematic threads. Death Wish is a look at our own fascination with violence through the ages – as both entertainment and catharsis – and a reminder of how thin the veil is that separates ‘civilized’ society from chaos. Likewise, the behavior of the police – whose role increases dramatically from the book, and who ultimately becomes complicit in Paul’s activities – only accentuates the film’s cynical view of humanity. It’s a portrait of a system that’s corrupt from top to bottom and back again.

Although there is arguably a reactionary pro-vigilante reading (which many critics picked up at the time), I think it’s more complex than that. Paul Kersey is played believably as a man who, after a huge shock, becomes gradually more psychotic. The film’s infamous final shot (Kersey pointing a finger-gun at the camera and laughing) is its most masterful sting; the point where, thanks to a magnificent turn by Bronson, we realize exactly how far gone Paul Kersey is. He’s not just over the edge – he’s actually enjoying it. Granted, this darkly comic punchline was frequently met by audience cheers but it’s also a tragic, chilling way to end a film, leaving a menacing image in the viewer’s mind.

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Death Wish, while rooted in exploitation cinema, remains a powerful piece. Bronson – never anything less than a charismatic presence – slides so comfortably into the role, it’s as if he’d always been waiting for it. The eerie groove of Herbie Hancock’s score accentuates a mood of urban entropy that still unsettles. It almost plays like a horror film, a creature feature with New York itself as the monster. The scenes outside the city are bright and hopeful and then, as the shadow of its skyline looms, everything darkens and becomes a threat. The fears of the middle class made flesh and concrete. Bronson fights the monster one bullet – and one dead perp – at a time.

But regardless of whether audiences cheered, booed or contemplated what they’d seen, Death Wish was a massive success, spawning a ton of imitators. Vigilante-style revenge swung from taboo to trope, with the grindhouse pumping out savage movies like Rape Squad, Vigilante Force, Rolling Thunder, and The Exterminator as the decade progressed. There was even a roughie porn version released in 1976 called Sex Wish, with the irrepressible Harry Reems in the Bronson role.

The same year, Brian Garfield wrote Death Sentence, his own sequel (and sort-of-response to the movie), in which Paul moves to Chicago and juggles his vigilantism with a newfound love interest in the form of a local prosecuting attorney. It’s very much a political animal, with Garfield trying to assert his left-wing credentials in the wake of what he perceived as the film’s right-wing ones and, while an interesting read, doesn’t make for a thrilling thriller. Death Sentence was very loosely adapted in 2007 by splat-pack wunderkind James Wan, although the movie plays more like a mash-up of the two stories (with a new character, Nick Hume, in lieu of Kersey/Benjamin) and definitely isn’t canon.

Still, in spite of the spin-offs and rip-offs, no one had much interest in doing an official film sequel until the early 80s, when the dawn of VHS revitalized the Death Wish fanbase and the box office potential was just too tempting to turn down.

The fledgling Cannon Films – at the height of their infamous opportunism – purchased the rights to the brand and, through a series of gutsy wranglings, managed to get both Winner and Bronson on board. Unfortunately, Death Wish 2 (finally released in 1982) suffers from many symptoms of sequel syndrome. It essentially takes the same story as the original and makes the sleaze sleazier, the gore gorier, the rape rapier, and the politics simpler. You even get the bombastic orchestral noodling of Jimmy Page in place of Herbie Hancock, as if to truly hammer home the point that it’s Death Wish for Dummies. Roger Ebert (interestingly enough, the man to whom Garfield dedicated Death Sentence) gave it his first ‘no stars’ rating, dubbing it “artistically inept and morally repugnant.” However, some 30+ years later, it’s ironic that the film’s astonishing lack of good taste is probably its biggest appeal for fans of exploitation cinema.

The story has some faint echoes of Death Sentence but is mostly its own beast. Paul is coastally transplanted from New York to Los Angeles and tries to rebuild his life with a new lady friend (played by Bronson’s real-life-wife Jill Ireland). His daughter Carol is still mute from her attack in the first film but recovering quite well until one day a bunch of thugs invade Paul’s house, gang-rape the maid and kidnap Carol (after which, unsurprisingly, they gang-rape her, too). She jumps out of a window to escape but lands on spiked railings and is fatally impaled, all of which sends Paul back into a vigilante frenzy.

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Characterization is thin on the ground here. Paul is a cipher with a gun who exists solely to track down the perps who wronged him. In the first film, the revenge feels more real. He never catches up with the guys who killed his wife, which adds both realism and poignancy to the plotting as well as establishing Paul’s attitude to his mission (in Death Sentence, Garfield has Paul justify this, somewhat brutally: “When you set out to eradicate a disease-bearing species of insects, you don’t hunt for particular individual insects.”). Here though, his rough justice plays out like a slasher film with a Michael Myers-esque antihero methodically stalking each of the guilty perps in turn, finishing them off with a bullet and a dry quip (“Do you believe in Jesus? Well, you’re about to meet him” being the most celebrated).

It’s crass, like I say, but not all bad. Bronson does the best he can with the material and it’s hard not to adore Jill Ireland. Her chemistry with him is, as usual, a delight and she is the heart of the film, even if she is underused. The atmosphere is great too. Winner took advantage of location shoots and filmed the seediest sections of the city (he even used real-life junkies, drag queens, hookers, and homeless people for extras). The neon-drenched boulevards of sin and sleaze have a brooding ambience, punctuated only by the haunting echo of gospel music from the evangelical churches, and take on a near mystical feeling. The scenes of Bronson patrolling them are some of the strongest and most memorable of the franchise, even if the film on the whole is perhaps the weakest entry.

Death Wish 3 (1985), on the other hand, finds Winner losing his shit completely and producing one of the strangest, most gloriously violent films of the 1980s. My first exposure to this movie (and indeed the whole series) was via the video game version for the Commodore 64. This, with its irresistible tagline of “YOU ARE BRONSON!” had an 8-bit Paul Kersey running around the streets, gorily obliterating as many random thugs as possible while an occasional old lady would run on screaming and get punched. It was a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the source material…

Although there are vague attempts at continuity, Paul Kersey’s character has long disappeared, replaced by just Charles Bronson saying words and wearing an array of hideous jumpers. Having abandoned all traces of being an architect (in fairness, all the designs we saw him draw in part two looked like Tesco Metros), he returns to New York because an old buddy has written to him, saying that gangs have taken over what was once a pleasant neighborhood and only Paul can help.

Paul sort of helps and yet doesn’t help. For one, his buddy dies within minutes of Paul’s arrival (note: it is VERY ILL-ADVISED to get close to Paul Kersey) and most of the neighbors quickly follow suit.

Paul makes it a lot worse for everyone by antagonizing the local ‘creeps’ (all of whom look like post-apocalyptic new wave leather daddies) and winding them up so badly that they move from petty crime and intimidation to a terrifying orgy of rape, arson, murder, and destruction. Yet somehow Paul still manages to amass an army of local assistants to help him decimate the crooks. The whole thing climaxes with a battle to end all battles: angry pensioners vs. 80s punks, everyone armed to the teeth. There’s a total onscreen body count of 78 (with 52 of these attributed to Bronson himself). It’s one crazy picture.

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Death Wish 3 paints 80s New York as a surreal 2000 AD-style wasteland where violence reigns supreme. It’s almost sci-fi. As an interesting aside, most of it was shot in London pretending to be New York (either on location in Brixton or inside a studio), which further adds to the sense that it’s happening in some other dimension. Rather than try to question Paul Kersey’s motivations or behavior, Death Wish 3 – for the first time in the franchise – just accepts that he’s right and lets him run rampage across this bizarro target-range world they’ve created for him.

It’s a surprisingly dangerous film in that, even though Paul’s a homicidal sociopath and the police officer who helps him is wildly corrupt, they’re written like heroes. And, through the film’s sheer force of will, I actually felt by the end that maybe it MIGHT be nice if gentle-voiced Uncle Bronson and his oversized revolver could come along and make everything lovely and safe. Obviously, things are not as simple in real life as they are in this pea-brained screenplay, but it’s an oddly soothing fantasy just so long as you absolutely do not attempt to think while you’re watching. It almost falls into the category of ‘guilty pleasure’ in the sense of feeling guilty about how it manipulates your morality but, at the same time, damn, it’s a pleasure. The L.A. Times called it a “vile, cynical piece of junk” and had a good point but, put up against today’s ultra-clean-cut PG-rated action blockbusters, it does feel weirdly nice to roll around in this unapologetic filth for 100 minutes.

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) reins it in somewhat, perhaps on account of being the first film not directed by Michael Winner, but instead by Cannon’s top Bronson collaborator J. Lee Thompson. Thompson’s desk was flooded with premises and spec scripts from writers wanting to pen the next Death Wish (Brian Garfield himself even had a go), but the job ultimately went to Gail Morgan Hickman, who’d recently written the entertaining Bronson vehicle Murphy’s Law for Cannon.

According to an interview in Paul Talbot’s superb book Bronson’s Loose! (the definitive document on the Death Wish films for anyone with even a passing interest), Hickman’s original script was more existential but Cannon kept making him change it to appeal to “the Death Wish audience.” Eventually, the only scene that remained from the first script was its incredible opener, in which some masked perps lead a frenzied attack on a woman in a parking lot. Bronson appears out nowhere, silently, dressed in black, gun in hand. “Who the fuck are you!?” shouts one of the perps. Bronson replies, bluntly, “Death” and shoots all three. He looks down at the last corpse and sees his own face.

It’s a strong start – even if it is all just a dream – but the film soon lapses into familiar territory, with Paul Kersey back in L.A., back to architecture, and back to being the unluckiest guy alive. His new girlfriend’s daughter dies of a crack overdose so he gets sucked back into the vigilante business, working with a newspaper tycoon whose own daughter died the same way, as they go to war on drugs. Considering when this was made, it’s not hard not to associate it with Reagan’s similar war and it does feel perhaps like the most reactionary and conservative of the lot. The narrative concentrates more on intrigue and twists than the earlier ones as Paul works his way up the drugs ladder to the boss, and the pace lags by comparison…

Still, despite all this, The Crackdown is a solid enough little thriller. It may not be the best Death Wish movie but nor does it completely devalue the franchise. Bronson is great as always and the none-more-80s climax in an arcade/rollerdisco is iconic and crazy, finally delivering the thrills audiences paid for. Great “crack” pun in the title too. I see what they did there.

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Between the fourth and fifth entries, a lot changed for the Death Wish personnel. Cannon Films self-destructed, Bronson semi-retired after the death of Jill Ireland and it took until 1994 before Menahem Golan (then heading up his own ill-fated Cannon stepchild, 21st Century Films) lured him back to the franchise. Although, by the muted mid-90s, most audiences were uninterested in this kind of action film – least of all with a 72-year-old protagonist – I’d argue Death Wish 5: The Face of Death is actually one of the strongest entries. New recruit Allan Goldstein took the director’s seat and wanted to bring the black humor back to the forefront. As a result, his entry has a fresh tone and freewheeling style that makes it – while quite silly and cheap – a whole lot of fun.

Sticking with the geographical traditions of odd-numbered films in New York, even-numbered films in LA, our mad vigilante antihero has relocated back to his east coast hometown (although eagle-eyed viewers may notice this was actually filmed in Toronto to save on costs). This time, he’s in witness protection, going by the name of Professor Paul Stewart, and he’s hooked up with a fashion designer called Olivia (Lesley-Anne Down). Everything would be idyllic at last but her ex Tommy is an evil mobster (Michael Parks, in an joyously twisted turn) and intent on causing trouble.

For fans of the series, it should be apparent from the moment Paul proposes to Olivia that she’s now got the ‘Kersey Curse’ and, yep: minutes later, she’s having her face permanently disfigured by one of Tommy’s henchmen (Freddie Flakes, a dandruff-plagued killer who – for added psychotronic value – commits this assault in the ladies room while dressed as a woman). This pushes Paul over the edge once more and back into his old ways as he wages a one-man war on Tommy and his gang of goobers.

The plot is ultra-straightforward here but the color comes from the wackiness of the villains and the creativity of Paul’s kills. No longer content to just shoot criminals, here he sets elaborate traps involving poisoned cannelloni, exploding footballs, and a novel use of a shrinkwrap machine. Anyone seeking a B-Grade vigilante thriller will get their money’s worth of nudity and gore and Bronson seems to be having a ball with the material (much of which he apparently co-wrote).

Since it was to be his last big screen role, there’s also something just a little poignant about Bronson’s final exit, walking away into the night and saying, “If you need any help, give me a call.” Sure, this is about as far away from the dark spirit of Brian Garfield’s original novel as you can get, but awww. I sure do miss the guy. The Death Wish franchise is a complicated, variable series of movies but, if nothing else, each entry serves as a reminder of what a colossal talent Charles Bronson was and how his presence could light up any screen.