Death Wish (1974)
Release Date: July 24th, 1974 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Winner Actors: Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia, Steven Keats, William Redfield, Stuart Margolin, Jeff Goldblum
eath Wish” is one of the finest revenge flicks ever made. Veering down a thought-provokingly singular avenue, it really isn’t so much about revenge as it is about vigilantism – the real, raw method of taking the law into one’s own hands. It’s the kind done summarily and violently, focusing on making the culpable pay long before determining the level of guilt or to satisfy a personal vendetta – not unlike a superhero’s idealized mission, sans the snappy outfits. With a very human character in the lead, dropped into a film that is careful to walk the line of glorifying murder and justifying killing, all while refusing to grossly distort the realism of the 1970s’ growing crime rates, “Death Wish” is sincere, unexpected, and highly entertaining.
It starts in beautiful, paradisiacal Hawaii, with Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) basking on the glamorous beaches and taking photos to remember their vacation. The mood is light and gay until the title flashes onscreen. Suddenly, a sinister foreshadowing is instilled upon the audience. After the couple arrives back in New York, a gang of three misfits (memorably led by a young Jeff Goldblum, credited only as “Freak 1”) notes the address of Joanna’s grocery delivery and pays her a visit. In Paul’s apartment, the ruthless trio, in Droog-like fashion, attacks the defenseless woman and her daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan). Joanna dies and Carol is so traumatized by the rape that she drifts into a vegetative state.
Paul is greatly disturbed, but holds himself together long enough to attend the funeral and see his daughter committed to an asylum. As the random act of violence slowly eats away at him, he realizes that lashing out against criminal activities might be an effective method of coping. His job as a housing development engineer takes him to Tucson, Arizona, where he reacquaints himself with firearms and a new opinion on self-defense. He returns to New York, with its incredibly high rate of transgressions, and slowly but assuredly starts frequenting dangerous locations alone, riding on the subway at night, and flashing money at seedy establishments. Like clockwork, the sordid underbelly of the city descends upon him, providing him with numerous opportunities to reap bloody, vigilante justice indiscriminately on every mugger he can lure into his trap.
Authentically, it’s a slow transformation for Paul, a man not habitually prone to hostilities. He even gets sick the first time he’s forced to defend himself. He’s not instantaneously a tough-guy or macho killing machine, and he initially detests weapons; although his background involves being a Navy SEAL, he’s always considered himself a conscientious objector and a bleeding-heart liberal. Very few movies dare to spend so much time developing and humanizing a character at the heart of a grisly exploitation movie.
But there’s a melancholy and sad tone overshadowing the escalating aggression, and “Death Wish” is never gung-ho about violence. In clever irony, the police department spends plenty of time, officers, and resources to track down the vigilante killer, all while trying to prevent citizens from being inspired to fight back. With the help of the media, Paul’s murder spree actually does some good, despite observing the typical pressures of corruption inherent in the skewed method of vindication. In the background of the commotions are the controversial and powerful ideas of Paul’s specific, unique, troubled brand of disassociated revenge: will he ever find the original hoodlums that attacked his family? And, if so, will he know it?
It’s not a rip-roaring, thrill-a-minute ride, but rather a careful examination of the street justice mindset and a complicated, winning break from mindless, over-the-top, blow-‘em-up actioners. It weighs the positive and negative effects of vigilante justice without settling for cheap kicks or exploitive bloodshed (though those elements debatably enter the picture in more sagacious forms), daring to lean in the direction of anti while still furnishing pro-law-breaking cathartic face-offs. “Death Wish’s” debut would meet commercial (but not critical) success, leading to the making of four sequels for a renowned cult franchise.
– Mike Massie