THE CANON of Cannon is a feature where we take a wandering look at the backlog of world-renowned trash peddlers, Cannon Films, and the work they left behind. This time: Death Wish 3.
I’d usually call it bad practice to begin a review of anything with an anecdote, but you’ll have to bear with me here. My first experience of Michael Winner’s Death Wish 3 was when I was around 12 years old. It was one o’clock in the morning, and I was idly channel-surfing when I came across a scene where garish street punks were hurling Molotov cocktails through pensioners’ windows. An old man with a dapper moustache and a leather jacket proceeded to machine-gun them all to death. There were explosions, there was screaming, there were Jimmy Page guitar solos erupting on the soundtrack – it was awesome.
11 years later, I’ve seen Death Wish 3 about four more times and it never gets old. It’s so blatant in its desire to murder things en masse, so cavalier in its commitment to destruction that it can’t help but be charming, and it’s such a stark contrast to the sombre modality of the original film that the comparison becomes even more hilarious.
Even Death Wish 2 had some small element of restraint, despite its Cannon backers and Page-helmed soundtrack. Director Michael Winner, notorious for his incompetence behind the camera (and a spiffy restaurant column), tacitly admitted to abandoning the generic conventions of the thriller for balls-to-the-wall action schlock. Whether it was to take the series in a new direction, or to capitalise on the 80s’ insatiable appetite for explosive carnage on the big screen is anyone’s guess, but he certainly needed the money at the time.
The original Death Wish was a grim examination of rising crime in New York, and was heavily criticised for advocating vigilante justice. Its source material, the novel by Brian Garfield, had stressed the mental instability of his protagonist; Garfield himself, among others, were incensed when Winner’s version of Paul Kersey was perceived as a heroic figure. Regardless, it was a dark, seedy film that tapped into the collective consciousness of the time it was made in, even if it did fuel the imaginations of ring-wing commentators throughout America.
The Cannon-funded sequel was bigger and brighter, but still, to a lesser extent, emphasised the key theme of endorsing vigilantism as a palatable means of wrenching justice from injustice. By both films’ end (moreso the first), Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), an otherwise unassuming architect, is a broken man, disillusioned by the inadequacy of the justice system and resigned to a life of wanton, lonely murder. This was conveyed primarily through violence, but it was Bronson’s central performance, which remains underrated to this day, that provided the bold print.
By Death Wish 3, the ambiguity of the Kersey character – that of a renegade enacting personal vengeance in the name of societal justice – is gone, replaced by a kill-crazy maniac with a lantern jaw and a happy trigger finger. The comparison between this third film and its predecessors is night and day, both literally and metaphorically. The New York of the original is lit by lampposts, wreathed in smoke, its landscape dominated by looping backalleys and distant sirens; the New York of Death Wish 3 is sunny and lively, its criminals brash and colourful, its policemen extravagantly useless.
The gangs of “street punks” here are the kind of gangs that could only exist in movies. They make the gangs from The Warriors look demure. They’re dressed like they did it in the dark; they speak in outdated aphorisms and giggle uncontrollably at the very idea of snatching an old lady’s purse. One of these thugs is literally called The Giggler (Kirk Taylor). Charles Bronson casually shoots him in the back with a Magnum. Manny Fraker (Gavin O’Herlihy), the leader of the gang, looks like he’s channelling Clancy Brown’s turn as The Kurgan in Highlander, with a deeper baritone and bigger eyes. Charles Bronson casually shoots him in the face with a rocket launcher.
Bronson, for his part, still manages to imbue Kersey with a sad, lonely emptiness, seeking to fill the void in his life by murdering everything he sees. Many critics at the time took Bronson’s impassive stare and mumbled slurs to be laziness, but even with this hyper-charged material he retains the inherent sadness of the character. With all other subtlety abandoned in favour of machine-gun massacres and enormous vehicular fireballs, Bronson brings a lot of character to the Terminator that Kersey has been warped into by the script.
What plot there is has been taken wholesale from the previous two films. Kersey re-appears in New York to visit an old friend, only to find him beaten up by the local gangs that terrorise his gated community. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, he is recognised by Shriker (Ed Lauter), a corrupt inspector, who promises to turn a blind eye if he commits to cleaning up the streets. As crime spreads and the police prove to be worse than useless, Kersey takes matters into his own hands, finds a new soulmate (who promptly dies) and trains the group of diversity-friendly citizens in his high-rise to kill everyone.
Death Wish 3 is unapologetic in its extremity. Much like the concurrent Rambo series, the films escalated with each successive instalment, culminating in the third. Just as Sly Stallone saved the noble Mujahideen from the filthy Communists in Rambo III, Charles Bronson saves a neighborhood by killing everything in sight. If nothing else, Death Wish 3 is escalation within escalation. At first, Kersey combats the thugs with his fists; later, he speaks with hand-cannons; finally, he blows them up with an LAW. “This isn’t a neighbourhood,” Shriker says to Kersey, “It’s a war.” This blunt statement is corroborated when Fraker literally calls in reinforcements, which manifest in the form of biker gangs wielding grenades and assault rifles.
The purse thefts and window smashing of the opening minutes transforms into burning buildings, charred corpses and pensioners booby-trapping their homes in the manner of Macaulay Culkin. The final 20 minutes or so is a symphony of glorious carnage, culminating in Kersey and Shriker mowing down thugs by the dozen. Side-by-side, policeman and vigilante, united in blood-letting. The scale of violence is both hilarious and surreal, dwarfing the comparatively serene opening moments. Michael Winner goes to war with New York and wins.
The image of the then-64 year old Bronson, silent and stone-faced, slaughtering hoodlums by the shedload is hysterical, yet oddly patrician. (Some would say fascist.) It’s triumphant bloodshed, enacted by an elderly man against a horde of youths. The metaphor makes itself. If Kersey was hinted to be the answer in the originals, he absolutely is the answer in this third film.
The rampant incompetence and/or laziness of the police is established immediately when they arrest Kersey without assessing the sitation, asking any questions or consulting witnesses. They then interrogate him, violently, in their rec room (for some reason). Later, they confiscate firearms from the pensioners for no discernible reason.
The “creeps” – as the film constantly calls them – are equated with the cockroaches that Shriker routinely crushes. They are legion, and killable without consequence. For these criminals, the prospect of reform is unthinkable. The metaphor is made even more thunderingly obvious when Kersey verbally equates the two: “It’s like killing roaches – you have to kill them all, or else what’s the point?”
Winner treats his characters like he treats editing, directing and dialogue – entirely perfunctory, existing solely to usher us on to the next murder or sexual assault. The latter occurs twice, revealing this series’ more repugnant side. Both are presented, with the peppy slap-bass score, as titillation, hypocritically inviting us to condemn the aggressors while simultaneously ogling the victims. In an otherwise hysterically bad, fun-filled picture, these are moments that remind us how deep in the gutter its mindset truly is. Marina Sertis, the first of said victims, had as much to say in her interview in The Story of Cannon Films, when she had to lay naked on a mattress for hours while shooting the scene. It’s simply indefensible.
But rape is treated with as much sensitivity as everything else in the film, so at least it’s consistent. Winner bombards us with statistics (crime up 11%, murder rates skyrocketing) to emphasise how rampant the crime in the city has become, and Shriker’s endorsement of Kersey’s methods suggests that even violent, corrupt or incompetent lawgivers are better than the “creeps” on the street.
The tenants in the projects loudly applaud Kersey’s killing of The Giggler. Kersey’s perfunctory love interest (Deborah Raffin) dies in a fireball and is never mentioned again. Which is good, because the sum of their conversation is Miss Davies (for she has no name) smiling vacantly and Kersey saying, “Chicken’s good. I like chicken.”
Death Wish 3 starts like a Grindhouse film and keeps that consistency throughout. The opening shots are framed with the barest of economy, and the number of times that Kersey walks to a window and looks out onto the neighbourhood below is staggering. Camera angles are largely static and uninteresting, with slow pans and dollies a rarity. The main theme sounds like it was ripped from a Shaft sequel. Everything about this film screams low-budget, quick-buck, and yet the mindless carnage of the denouement suggests anything but.
Much of the budget went on Bronson’s fee, who expressed his distaste at the level of violence in multiple interviews following its release. While Cannon were cornering the market for classier old hands as their action heroes (see: Thunder Run), they hadn’t quite mastered replicating that class in the films they starred in. He can’t have been too uncomfortable, given he signed on for two more sequels, but Death Wish 3 represents the height of excess within the series. In its patrician, explosive manner, it taps into the fundamental appeal of the series and stretches everything within that appeal to its breaking point.
It’s also persisted in popular culture longer than the other films. Its cult abides in how every single thing about it is fucking ludicrous, and that cult is already considerable. Hobo with a Shotgun is practically a love letter to Death Wish 3 in itself, and somehow seems less ridiculous by comparison. It’s brash, it’s cartoonish, it’s thunderingly stupid, but it’s a laugh-riot from start to finish, and even makes a compelling case for gun control. And hey, if you’re hankering for some Death Wish, you can always wait for the impending remake with Bruce Willis. By Eli Roth. Come back, Michael.
Next time: The Breakin’ Trilogy. They made three of them.