'80s action films, 1980's, action films, Alex Winter, Assault on Precinct 13, bad cops, Charles Bronson, cinema, crime wave, Death Wish, Death Wish 3, Deborah Raffin, Ed Lauter, film franchise, film reviews, films, Fraker, gang rape, gangs of punks, Gavan O'Herlihy, gun enthusiasts, guns, Jimmy Page, Kirk Taylor, liberals vs conservatives, Mad Max, Marina Sirtis, Martin Balsam, Michael Winner, misogyny, Movies, New York City, over-the-top, Paul Kersey, post-apocalyptic wasteland, revenge, rocket launcher, sequel, sequels, set in the 1980's, the Giggler, The Warriors, Tony Spiridakis, Troma films, vengeance, vigilante, vigilantism
As a youth, many of my favorite films tended to be of the ultra-violent action variety. While I watched a lot of different things, there was a certain group of films that seemed to get rewatched endlessly, as if on a loop: Magnum Force (1973), Pale Rider (1985), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Death Wish 3 (1985), RoboCop (1987) and Die Hard (1988). Most of these could probably be chalked up to the fact that Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were two of my parents’ favorite actors, thereby gaining plenty of airtime in our household. As for RoboCop and Die Hard: what 11-year-old boy wouldn’t love those? As time passes, I find that my opinion on most of them still holds up: for one reason or another, these are all fundamentally solid films.
Of the group, Death Wish 3 is one of the ones I watched the most, while younger, but have revisited the least as time goes on. As part of my personal film festival, I decided to finally revisit the film, pairing it with the original (if I had access to the second film and hadn’t just watched the fourth a few months back, this would have been the whole quadrilogy). As seen in my previous entry, I found that the original Death Wish (1974) still holds up some forty years later, retaining lots of subtle power among the flying bullets. How, then, would one of my formerly favorite films hold up? Journey behind the curtain and let’s find out.
As far as genre franchises go, the Death Wish series actually tells a continual story, give or take the rather large lapses in time between the first and third entries (8 years). In the first, we were introduced to the character of Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), a mild-mannered, pacifistic New York City architect who becomes a vigilante after a gang of punks rape his daughter and kill his wife. The second film continues the storyline as Kersey and his daughter, Carol, move to Los Angeles in order to start a new life. After Carol is once again attacked and ends up killing herself, Paul picks up his revolver and hunts down the creeps responsible. By the end of the film, we see Paul all alone, the last of his family gone: the assumption is that he will continue to hunt the streets, cleaning up the criminal element. Since there ended up being a third (and fourth) film, that assumption would be right on the nose.
After some time has passed, “legendary” vigilante Paul Kersey boards a bus and returns to New York City, the place where it all began. He’s on his way to visit an old war buddy, Charley (Francis Drake), but this isn’t the same New York City from a decade before: this is the ’80s, baby, and shit’s bad…real bad. It seems that roving gangs of punks, similar to the creepazoids from Max Max (1979) or Troma’s Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986), have taken over the city and Paul gets to his friend’s apartment just after the punks have beaten him nearly to death. Charley dies, the cops burst in and Paul is hauled off to the station house for a little good-natured “interrogation.”
Once there, Paul catches the eye of Lt. Shriker (Ed Lauter), who just happened to be a beat cop when Paul went on his initial “cleaning” spree in NYC. Seems that Shriker is fighting a losing battle against the punks on the street and he needs something that his entire police force can’t provide: he needs the “bad guys” to start dying. Shriker knows that Paul used to handle that particular “job” quite handily and offers him a deal: he can return to the streets, killing as many punks, criminals and ’80s metal-heads as he wants, as long as he keeps Shriker in the loop and throws him a few choice busts every so often. When the alternative is a hefty jail sentence, Paul agrees: time to hit the streets, once again.
As Paul wanders the post-Apocalyptic neighborhood outside Charley’s apartment (seriously: the place is like a cross between The Warriors (1979) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) on a bad day), he starts to figure out the hierarchy. Seems that Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy), the platinum-blonde psycho that Paul briefly encountered in lockup, is the ringleader, ruling everything with an iron fist and really sharp knife. With his gang of goons, including The Giggler (Kirk Taylor), The Cuban (Ricco Ross) and Hermosa (Alex Winter), Fraker has the entire neighborhood terrified and paying protection money in order to stay alive. It’s a bad bunch of dudes…but there’s big trouble coming.
Paul also meets the residents of Charley’s apartment building, including Charley’s best friend and fellow war vet, Bennett (Martin Balsam), Manny and Maria Rodriguez (Joseph Gonzalez, Marina Sirtis), Eli and Erica Kaprov (Leo Kharibian, Hana-Maria Pravda) and Mr. and Mrs. Emil (John Gabriel, Mildred Shay). To complete his merry circle of friends, Paul also becomes romantic with Kathryn Davis (Deborah Raffin), the attractive young public defender that he met at the police station. It would all be so lovely, of course, if Fraker wasn’t so dead-set on running Paul out of the neighborhood, one way or the other. In short order, the place becomes an absolute war-zone and death comes to visit them all: it comes for the punks, of course, because Paul is one helluva shot. It also comes for the innocents, of course, because this wouldn’t be Death Wish without a whole lotta revenge. As the body count rises on both sides of the line, one thing remains clear: Kersey ain’t leaving until he’s either outta ammo…or targets.
Right off the bat, there’s absolutely nothing subtle or subtextual about Death Wish 3 whatsoever: this film is all raging id, rampaging from one extreme to the other. Unlike the basically good but ineffectual cops from the first film, every cop in DW3 comes across as a steroid-addled, trigger-happy goon, particularly the incredibly dastardly Lt. Shriker. Hell, he was technically only one twirled mustache away from a Perils of Pauline-era villain. He bashes Paul around, snarls that he could have him killed at any time and punches him square in the face just because it’s “his” jail.
Whereas the punks from the first film weren’t exactly multi-dimensional (Jeff Goldblum’s sneering mug was about as much character development as we got), the gangs in DW3 are completely over-the-top and cartoonish. Many of them do seem to have been lifted wholesale from The Warriors, right down to the odd matching outfits for certain groups within the gang (Gang subgroups? What nightmare of micro-management is this?!) and by the time we get to the finale, where gang members ride around on motorcycles while hurling grenades willy-nilly, it will be pretty impossible to not expect Mad Max to come zooming over the horizon. Fraker is so evil that he easily surpasses Bond villains, winding up somewhere in the neighborhood devoted to Marvel villains.
In many ways, there’s definitely a consistent through-line from the first film to the third: after all, director Michael Winner was on board for the first three films and the overall message (a good man with a gun trumps a bad man with a gun) is unwavering. Where Death Wish was careful to portray both sides of the issue, even if it obviously only gave credence to one side, DW3 dispenses with this facade completely. Paul isn’t on any kind of journey in DW3: he’s already there. While the first film grappled with the disparity between wanting to defend yourself and taking revenge, there’s no question as to what needs to be done by the time the third film opens. If Death Wish and its first sequel could be seen as drama-suspense hybrids, DW3 is almost entirely an action picture. In the first film, Paul has to deal with both the police (polite society) and the criminals: the police didn’t condone his activities, they just ran him out of the city. In the third film, not only do the police condone Kersey’s vigilantism, they actively push him into it. By the time we get to the finale, where Paul and Shriker run down the street, side by side, merrily gunning down anonymous bad guys (the body count in this thing, for the gangs alone, has to be in the mid-hundreds), DW3 is the furthest thing from the original film it could possibly be. The thought-provoking, gut-quaking violence of the first film has been replaced by a Ren and Stimpy-level of carnage that certainly befits most mid-’80s action sequels but makes it impossible to take anything seriously.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the film, however, and one that continually flew over my head as a kid, is the rampant misogyny. Admittedly, the first and second films were precipitated upon the sexual assault of a young woman but they also featured peripheral female characters: in DW3, every single (good) female character is either assaulted or killed. It’s such an obvious part of the film that it’s hard to believe the filmmakers didn’t intend it but it’s unpleasant, nonetheless. ’80s action films were never known for their progressive gender politics, in the best of situations, but the female characters in DW3 all seem doomed from their introductions. When combined with the over-the-top, testosterone-fueled action sequences, the absolute lack of surviving female characters makes this very much a “boys’ club.” To be honest, it’s probably no wonder that this film appealed to me so much as a kid: this movie was pretty much made for boys in their early teens, rating be damned.
And yet, despite its inherent flaws and ham-fisted politics, there something kind of charming about Death Wish 3. The parts that I remembered loving as a kid (blowing away the purse-snatcher, Paul’s ingenious booby traps, Fraker’s delicious villainy) were just as enjoyable this time around. Sure, the film may be full of holes and uses a disturbing amount of fantasy to glide over the rough patches (the cops are nowhere to be found, while everything is blowing up, until they’re needed for the big finale, at which point they all swoop down, en masse: were they all on break or something?) but it also has a gonzo sense of energy and vitality to it. The film looks pretty great, full of rich, vibrant colors and the soundtrack, by Jimmy Page (yep, that Jimmy Page), is pretty awesome: it’s a keyboard-heavy, funky batch of tunes that perfectly evoke the theme songs to various ’80s cop shows…in the best way possible, mind you).
Unlike Death Wish, which operated in shades of gray, Death Wish 3 is very much a black-and-white film: the bad guys are all absolutely bad, the good guys are all absolutely good. Guns are not only good but absolutely necessary. When the law fails you, take measures into your own hands. There’s no room for dialogue or division here: you’re either standing with Paul, shooting at the creeps, or you’re getting shot at…simple as that. When I want to watch something thought-provoking and visceral, I’ll undoubtedly return to the original. When I want to turn my brain off and root for the white hats, however, there’s no doubt that I’ll be returning to Death Wish 3. After all, any film that features a reverse mohawk, giggling purse-snatcher and death by (close-range) rocket launcher can’t be all bad. It was the ’80s, after all.