Death Wish (1974) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence, rape and language
Running Time: 93 min.
Cast: Charles Bronson, Vincent Gardenia, Hope Lange, Steven Keats, William Redfield, Stuart Margolin, Stephen Elliott, Kathleen Tolan, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Guest, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs
Director: Michael Winner
Screenplay: Wendell Mayes
Review published August 15, 2004
Death Wish succeeds more as anti-liberal backlash than as a movie, with an engaging premise of a conscientious objector who takes up arms in the streets of New York City when he finds that the criminals have run rampant without anyone to stop them. Based on the novel by Brian Garfield, the premise of the film pushes forward the notion that if there aren't enough police to help protect the citizens, then the citizens need to start defending themselves. It's an influential movie, spawning four sequels and dozens of imitators, and striking a chord with an audience that had been increasingly fed up with not seeing justice served to those who inflict harm on others. It's a simplistic story, with equally simplistic delivery, but it gets its point across, although the hammy acting and spotty direction do little to bolster the ideology into a good film in the end.
Charles Bronson (Love and Bullets) stars as Paul Kersey, a low-key "bleeding heart liberal" working as an architect in New York, where handguns are not allowed. A devout pacifist, Kersey refused to fight in the Korean War, and generally speaking, he has a good job, with a good family, and little to complain about. That is, until a trio of hooligans invades his home, attempts to rape his wife and daughter, leaving one dead and the other in a mental institution. The police are befuddled, so at the urging of one of his friends, he takes up a gun and patrols the streets himself, trying to rid them of as many murderous thugs as possible. Meanwhile, the police concentrate a good deal of their energy on catching this vigilante, while the press and public praise him as a hero.
I've never been a huge fan of Michael Winner's (The Mechanic, The Sentinel) directorial style, as it feels choppy and stagnant much of the time, and he doesn't always get the best performances from his actors. I do enjoy composer Herbie Hancock's work, but his improvisational jazz style is ill-suited for a hard-boiled action drama like this. Death Wish, for all of its interesting points, is just too uneven an experience to fully recommend to anyone who isn't either a die-hard Bronson fan or a lover of average-joe vigilante films in general. As a testament of pro-gun and anti-criminal rights, it does hit its marks, but as a movie, the flaws are too substantial to ignore.
-- Followed by Death Wish II (1982), Death Wish 3 (1985), Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987), and Death Wish 5: The Face of Death (1994)
©2004 Vince Leo