DEATH WISH (1974) Review

Directed by: Michael Winner
Starring: Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia

When it comes to vigilante revenge thrillers you can’t get much more iconic than the original DEATH WISH and its protagonist Paul Kersey. Becoming a veritable one man army he tasks himself with the mission of cleaning the scum from the mean streets of New York City after a home invasion leaves his wife dead and his daughter bruised both physically and mentally. And although this is far from the first movie to feature a single man waging a personal war against criminals it is easily one of the best examples out there.

Mild mannered Paul Kersey (Bronson) is an architect. He’s happily married with a lovely daughter and appears to be pretty comfortable both financially and in his personal life. But all of that changes when his wife and daughter become victim to a violent home invasion. Three thugs follow them home from the grocery store and pose as delivery boys to gain access to their apartment. Once inside they rough the women up as they search for money and then after displaying their disappointment at just how little cash is lying around they beat the shit out of Joanna (Lange) and tear off Carol's clothes before abusing her. A swift kick to Joanna’s head and they run off.
Joanna dies in the hospital but Paul’s daughter Carol is fine (physically at least) so Paul heads on down to the police station to see how the investigation is going. After getting a fairly blunt and disappointing reply Paul heads off on a work ‘vacation’ to Arizona to deal with a land development. Upon returning he is gifted with a shiny new .32 revolver which he will be using quite a lot in the coming days.
A chance run in with a mugger ends with the mugger dead and Paul holding the smoking gun. What follows is a one man mission to cleanse the streets of the city as Paul heads out at night looking for trouble with his .32. But as the bodies start piling up the police begin putting the pieces together and soon they are hot on Paul’s heels. Will they catch the vigilante killer?

I was always a little disappointed that Paul never gets revenge on the thugs responsible for his wife’s death but then I always took that to be a comment on the staggeringly high crime rate in the city at the time. This is confirmed when Paul talks to the detective heading the investigation and is told pretty much straight up that there’s not much hope of finding the offenders.

Without any real leads to follow up on Paul starts shooting up any criminals he comes across but his first victim is somewhat of an accident. I always liked the fact that he doesn't go from mild mannered, middle aged man straight to stone cold killer. The first time he shoots someone it visibly affects him and shakes him to his core. But once he realizes what he’s capable of he purposely goes out at night looking for trouble and dealing out his own brand of justice.

But simply labelling DEATH WISH as an avenger style film with an impressive body count would be to deny it its true power which comes in the form of the moral and ethical questions it raised. Can vigilantism be a good thing? To what lengths should a person go to defend themselves. The film makes an argument in favor of vigilantism by explaining the crime rate dropping after Paul’s attacks, but to its merit it also brings to light the other side of the coin. What effect will this vigilantism have in the long run? Will it whip the citizens into a frenzy where eventually they'll be attacking anybody who looks suspicious?

And although events start off pretty clean cut (Paul’s first victim is clearly attempting to mug him) they eventually wander into more ambiguous territory as Paul not only goes out seeking out muggers but even begins to shoot them while they are fleeing. This is when the notion of self-defense goes right out the window and you start questioning whether or not Paul really is doing the right thing.
Charles Bronson has never really been known as a particularly great actor but he does an outstanding job here as do just about everybody else. Even the very young Jeff Goldblum in his role as one of the thugs who invades Kersey’s apartment puts on a fittingly aggressive display.

DEATH WISH stands as el numero uno on my list of vigilante flicks but it is also much more than just that. It’s actually quite an intelligent film and is a product of its time and it does a good job of not glorifying vigilantism but instead offering arguments both for and against. On one hand you can just sit back and enjoy the ride as Paul Kersey doles out high velocity justice with his .32 revolver or you can go a bit deeper and ponder the moral questions the movie raises, really it’s up to you.
It’s not your usual Charles Bronson action fest and whether or not you'll enjoy it may depend upon your thoughts about crime and justice. I still highly recommend it to everybody though and I personally give it 9 dead muggers out of 10.

No comments:

Post a Comment