If there’s one sub-category of exploitation that grips me tighter than my love of gory, trashy horror movies, it’s the urban vigilante movie and following the success of the original, 1974 Death Wish, there was certainly no shortage of this shit. Jan Michael Vincent did Defiance, Robert Ginty did The Exterminator and William Lustig directed Vigilante. Since the mid-70’s when Bronson picked up the Paul Kersey role and rode it to infamy, the vigilante action movie spoke to the urban condition which seemed to worsen right up until mid-80’s when beefed up, oiled action stars like Stallone and Arnold redefined the cheap action franchise. It’s a wonder that even in the mid-1980’s, where it seemed that anything goes, that Death Wish 3 managed to become the most popular entry into the series.
The original Death Wish, for what it is, is actually a pretty good movie. Despite it’s obvious production values, it manages to be a great action movie and still speaks to the urban condition of the time. Death Wish 3 does away with all that needless drama, though. By this point, Cannon had re-established Death Wish as a hyper-violent urban western. Kersey had since been the archetypal western stranger on the west coast and now it was time to bring him back to New York and thrust him head first into a maddening, fever dream of an action movie. All reason is absent.
The plot of Death Wish is as thin as they come. It’s a very cheap excuse to shoot bad guys. Kersey is returning to New York to visit an old war buddy. While en route to what is most likely the South Bronx, Kersey’s buddy is attacked by thugs from the local gang and beaten to the edge of life. Kersey arrives in time to have the man die in his arms and also be arrested on suspicion of his murder. While in the holding cell, Kersey runs afoul of the leader of the gang that runs the South Bronx. Shortly thereafter, he’s interrogated by the police captain who remembers him from his first tour in New York and agrees to let Kersey run wild on the same neighborhood he was arrested in. He’s given carte blanche to blow away as many punks as he can and still give the cops a few arrests here and there. So now, living in his dead friend’s apartment, receiving weapons in the mail from an unnamed friend on the west coast, he takes up his war on the local gang much to the happiness of the good, law abiding citizens in the neighboorhood. Naturally, the movie builds to a cresendo when the local gang calls in reinforcements and the neighborhood is reduced to a war zone as the reinvigorated neighborhood joins the fight.
Let it be known that I kept a running tally on the body count throughout and managed to lose count somewhere during the big street fight in the end. Over 70 people are beaten, stabbed, shot, burned and thrown to their grisly ends. It also wouldn’t be a Death Wish movie without a rape scene. I can remember bugging my mom in the video store when it came out to rent it and I was quickly turned down being told that it was too violent. Back then I felt robbed, but I know what she was talking about. The violence in this movie is ferocious! It can also be quite hilarious. For instance, a gang of bikers roars into the streets only to be clotheslined by a chain held by the neighborhood good guys. After the bikers wipe out, several men flood the street and shoot them where they lay. To top it off, a crowd of children of leap out into the road and begin jumping for joy. I wish I were making this up.
From start to finish, it’s absolute madness. The dialog is awkward and always foolish. The entire script seems to be written by a seventh grader chock full o’ Kool Aid. Everything about it has this insane pipe dream quality. It’s almost psychedelic. The local thugs are cartoon caricatures that looked nothing like the genuine criminal element of 1985. It also sports a surprisingly strange cast featuring Alex “Bill S. Preston, Esquire” Winters in his first role and Marina Sirtis in a non-speaking role a few years prior to her role on Star Trek: The Next Generation as Counselor Troi. The gang is presented less as an actual street gang and more of a cult. They’re dressed in ridiculous break dance fashion and wear identifying marks on their foreheads. Drug use is also depicted as a ritual. Through it all, Bronson phones it in and still manages to be the shining hero of the entire ordeal. His dialog is restricted to a few words here and there, by no means is he a talkative fellow. His most complicated deliveries come in the form of specification run downs on the weapons he’s receiving in the mail.
Kersey’s Wildey .475 hand gun is as much a star of the movie as Bronson. It’s an intimidating pistol that arrives in the mail and is said by Kersey to “make a real mess” which is promptly demonstrated to the neighborhood on a crowded sidewalk as Kersey nails the local purse snatcher, The Giggler. The Giggler manages to escape all pursuit throughout the movie simply by running, but his inability to control himself when Kersey flashes a precariously dangling camera proves that no matter how fast he is, he can’t outrun a bullet.
It goes on and on like this. Kersey lures the creeps out with promise of an easy steal and then nonchalantly saunters into the street to hose them down with hot lead. At no point does he ever seem genuinely in peril. It’s this quality that makes this such a fun movie to watch. Motivation and all sense of reason are thrown to the wind in order to put Kersey in a situation where he can shoot someone and then resume eating dinner. And if things weren’t already weird enough, there’s a romance angle that is as awkward and random as you might expect from Death Wish 3. Kersey’s public defender eventually falls for him, for some reason and ultimately pays the price for being Kersey’s girl. They needed something to fuel the fire and push the movie over the edge into a place of pure Lovecraftian madness. Her demise stands as one of the funniest ever put to celluloid, serving as a snowball effect of hilarious circumstances. Yet in the end, Kersey gives her the briefest glance before returning to what he was doing.
At no point does this movie ever disappoint. Its reputation is well earned and if you think that it can’t get any weirder than I have already described, the score to the movie is provided by Jimmy Page, legendary guitarist for Led Zeppelin. The first Death Wish has a great soundtrack provided by Herbie Hancock. It’s full of wailing organs and bongo drums yet Page’s contribution, oddly, doesn’t feature a lick of guitar. What we’re left with is what sounds like a canned soundtrack, wildly changing from scene to scene.
Honestly, if there’s ever a bad movie to be seen, it’s Death Wish 3.