How stupid is the villain in Death Wish 3? At any moment, he can dispose of the hero. Any moment! But what does he do instead? He talks and threatens. And waits. And waits some more. By the time he has the hero in a very vulnerable position, instead of finally pulling the goddamn trigger already, he just can’t shut up about his precious bulletproof vest.
Roger Ebert famously called this cliche The Fallacy Of The Talking Killer. God knows it’s been employed by lazy screenwriters for decades. Maybe it’s time to retire this overused technique for good.
In the original Death Wish (a good, challenging film worth seeing), mild-mannered architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson in his most famous role), a lifelong pacifist, sees his happy little world completely shattered after a band of thieving rapists assault his family in their own apartment. His wife murdered and his daughter institutionalized, he can’t track down the assailants (one of whom is played by a pre-stardom Jeff Goldblum) because he doesn’t know what they look like.
Instead, armed with a powerful Wildey Magnum he receives as a gift from a friend, he lures other would-be muggers into a trap and blasts them, turning him into an unlikely folk hero for the public and a constant frustration for law enforcement. By the end, a deal is reached. There won’t be a prosecution if Kersey leaves town.
In Death Wish 2 (a terrible movie), Kersey relocates to Los Angeles where another band of thugs (one played by Laurence Fishburne wears sunglasses from the Jesse Ventura collection) steal his wallet and then break into his house to assault his maid who is never seen or heard from again. By the time he arrives on the scene with his now mute daughter after a day of bonding, they attack him and kidnap her. After she is again assaulted, she accidentally kills herself while trying to escape.
Because he actually saw their faces (and apparently has an incredible memory), he systematically tracks them down over a series of nights and assassinates them. (He doesn’t believe the cops will ever arrest them. Kersey refuses to cooperate with the investigation.) After murdering the last one in a mental hospital (yep, the same one that once housed his traumatized daughter), his once skeptical new squeeze Gail (Bronson’s real-life wife Jill Ireland), a radio journalist who believes in criminal justice reform, quietly breaks off their recent engagement.
Which brings us to number three. When it begins, a stone-faced Kersey returns by bus to New York City to visit an old friend who is in the process of being beaten up by, you guessed it, another band of violent thieves, who demand money for “protection”. It is such an unconvincing scene, one of many in what is easily the silliest chapter in the Death Wish saga thus far. (Would you believe one of them is played by Ted’s future pal Bill, Alex Winter?)
After arriving in his friend’s apartment in the slums, Kersey is wrongly nabbed by the cops who think he killed him. (Yep, they’re not too bright, either.) Once back at the precinct, they start beating him up for some reason until their boss calls them off. He gets a cheap shot in, as well, and then recognizes Kersey. (He was using Kimble (an obvious Fugitive reference) as an alias.)
Temporarily thrown in one of two holding cells filled with stereotypical toughies, he encounters Manny Fraker (Gavin O’Herlihy), a gang leader who looks like David Carradine with Road Warrior Hawk’s haircut. He also has an equal sign with a red line through it on his forehead, the lamest gang sign I’ve ever seen. (All his followers have it, as well.) Among many dumb mistakes he makes, he calls out Kersey and even orchestrates an attempted assault on him that doesn’t exactly go well. Oh yeah, and then after he’s released (how in the hell does he have a clean record?), he foreshadows what he’ll do to an old lady on his “turf”. It’s one of the only times O’Herlihy’s performance is genuinely scary.
The rest of the time he’s a complete moron. After Kersey makes a deal with the anti-Constitutionalist police chief who is now suddenly super friendly (why the initial suckerpunch, motherfucker?), Fraker is stunned to see his new enemy move into his area of control. (Why did you pick a fight with him, you dope?)
But does he have him immediately killed? Nope. He calls him to offer a warning. Why? For Christ’s sake, why? I mean, he knows Kersey is there to take him down. He knows this! (Kersey has free rein to do what he pleases. Plus, Fraker’s goons killed his friend.) He has many loyal members in his gang willing to do his bidding. In fact, one is sent to Kersey’s old friend’s apartment (where our hero is temporarily residing) to spy on him (but not kill him). Unfortunately, he’s as discreet as Anthony Weiner. Which means the next time he sneaks in through the bathroom window, Kersey has left a rusty surprise for him. Should’ve looked down before taking that first step, dumb dumb.
As the neighbours in this dilapidated hellhole get shaken down for their money and their belongings (while the women here get routinely harassed and assaulted including Marina Sirtis, the future Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation), because he can’t get to Fraker (he’s always surrounded by his loyalists) Kersey can only take out a few of his goons at a time. For instance, he rents a car using it as bait to attract a couple of thieves who get blown away the minute one of them threatens his life. (Like Kersey’s life is ever seriously threatened in these movies, rare stab wounds notwithstanding.)
In another, he dares an elusive mugger to steal his camera which he dangles temptingly over his shoulder. With his trusted Wildey Magnum brought out of retirement, The Giggler is no longer laughing. (He really did enjoy his mugging.) His stupid nickname inspires unintentional laughs when his fellow gang members mourn his death.
All the while, Fraker takes forever to attempt to extinguish Kersey’s life. None of them are ultimately successful because he has remarkably shitty aim and he fucking talks too much.
Oh, I forgot to mention Deborah Raffin. She plays Kersey’s public defender who meets him once at the police precinct early on and then takes a cab all the way to this shitty war zone later on just to ask him out. (Really? An instant attraction with old stone face after a 30-second conversation? She must have a thing for vengeful psychos.) Unlike Jill Ireland in number two, she’s no reformer. Tired of defending unrepentent scum in court (well, someone has to do it), she wishes for a tougher system. (If only she knew about Kersey’s methods.) What ultimately happens to her is predictable and I have to say, laughable. Gratitituous explosions in dumb action films have that effect on me.
What’s puzzling about Death Wish 3 is by the time we reach the inevitably violent conclusion, where the gang call in reinforcements for their escalated war with the neighbourhood, we learn that these traumatized residents could’ve protected themselves right from the start. (On the other hand, what was stopping the gang from kicking everyone out of their apartments to avoid all of this? Why do you prefer to live in absolute squalor, idiots?) I mean what’s the point of having guns in your apartments if you never use them? Yes, the cops confiscate one such weapon from the nice, elderly Jewish couple but they have a spare we only know about once it’s retrieved from its hiding spot.
Speaking of that, are the cops in cahoots with the gang? It’s never fully explained why they let the gang do what they want (but give parking tickets to the law-abiding residents) until things get way out of hand. Then, they suddenly start caring. (Remember, this movie was released in 1985, well before the NYPD’s implementation of Broken Windows.)
Kersey learns through a local he befriends that his old war buddy (the one killed off in the opening scene) hid a couple of giant war time machine guns he was somehow able to slip past customs. As it turns out, only one of them still works. And, as you can imagine, unintentional hilarity ensues. The whole time he fires, Branson somehow maintains a straight face. I couldn’t.
As the war rages on in the third act, Fraker slips into Kersey’s friend’s apartment (what happened to the board of nails?) in what should be a successful assassination mission. His bulletproof vest he’s so goddamn proud of initially saves his life. But then he starts yakking. Less chitty chatty and more bang bang, dipshit. I mean you had one job, one fucking job, Manny! Jesus.
The Death Wish franchise began during a high crime period in the mid-70s and ended two decades later during the year Joe Biden wrote a destructive “tough-on-crime” law that over time would institutionalize America’s already heartless mass incarceration state and target the most vulnerable populations, mostly for drugs. Only the first one cleverly captures the hopelessness and paranoia of a time where citizens had legitimate reason to fear for their lives and their loved ones. It’s a skillfully made thriller. I understand Kersey’s rationale even if I don’t necessarily agree with his actions.
Death Wish 2 is a simple-minded urban revenge fantasy that transforms the once likeable Bronson character into a despicable assassin. He’s no better than a mob hitman. As Entertainment Weekly correctly pointed out 20 years ago, it blatantly recycles the set-up of its superior predecessor. Any attempts to challenge the idea of vigilantism are minimized without further discussion. The radio reporter barely gets any time to make her case for sensible, non-violent reform. As she’s about to do a story on it, the film completely cuts her off.
Death Wish 3 is an unintentional howler, a self-parody of an action film, a cinematic wet dream for right-wing drug warriors who refuse to see the undeniable connection between their racist “justice” policies and the severe poverty that results from them. In Death Wish movies, violent, rapey, drugged out degenerates are everywhere, especially in this particular neighbourhood, and it is only with ruthless, unapologetic force that they can be stopped. To hell with their Constitutional rights.
As the real-life Wars on Drugs and Terrorism stumble on years after they began, we now know that’s no solution at all.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, September 5, 2016