Monday, December 5, 2011

A Frank Review of "Death Wish" (1974)

The Short Version? Vigilante Movies: The Beginning
What Is It? Thriller
Who Is In It? Charles Bronson, Cosmo Castorini
Should I See It? Yes

In an alternate universe, Sidney Lumet stuck with this picture instead of jumping ship to Serpico. It starred Jack Lemmon as the aging Paul Kersey, who gradually turns to vigilantism after the murder of his wife and the psychologically catastrophic rape of his daughter. It was a socially conscientious look at the impact of crime and outlaw justice. Henry Fonda played the police chief, and it was another film classic from perhaps the greatest decade of cinema.

In our reality, Death Wish is an above average exploitation flick by journeyman director Michael Winner starring that spectacular lump of meat, Charles "F'n" Bronson. While filmed in the gritty '70s style of contemporary greats, name dropping producer Dino De Laurentiis should dissuade viewers from any elevated regard for the picture. It's a Dirty Harry knock-off coincidentally swollen with cameos by stars in the waiting (including Olympia Dukakis and Christopher Guest, while debuting Denzel Washington and Jeff Goldblum.) Bronson is a lousy actor but an intimidating screen presence. The assortment of scenarios with muggers waiting to meet the business end of his revolver are exciting and retain the element of real danger to the protagonist, as opposed to the bulletproof tough guys of the 1980s. Vincent Gardenia plays the detective in charge of finding the vigilante, and he's actually intelligent in adept pursuit.

The movie is basically Paul Kersey's origin story, so it takes nearly forty-five minutes before the protagonist goes out on his first patrol. The information before this point is necessary to the development of an extreme response. Rather than setting up grand villains and such, the movie then begins the parallel stories of Kersey's new life and the police pursuit of him for it. The result is, ahem, all-killer no-filler, and leads to a logical conclusion that doesn't insult the audience's intelligence by involving the hoods responsible for Paul's woe (although there's meta-justice dealt out in "St. Ives". Already in his fifties, the movie finally made an action star out of Bronson, and remains engaging nearly forty years and countless imitators later.

  • Theatrical Trailer Also, don't underestimate subtitles. With bare bones releases, you appreciate the little things.


mathematicscore said...

My love for Bronson runs deep and true. I feel it's nearly as good as Dirty Harry and has a good enough spin not to be a straight lift. Unlike the Dirty Harry series though, Deathwish's sequels veered into b-movie territory pretty hard.

Deathwish 3 is the most awesomely ridiculous movie ever, though.

Diabolu Frank said...

I saw Death Wish 3 exactly one time twenty-four years ago on a small black and white television. I still have vivid memories, and a few key actors who have appeared in many other films remain "that guy from Death Wish 3." That means something. The Bronson movie that most scarred my young psyche was Ten To Midnight though, which I haven't seen in even longer.

I almost watched Dirty Harry as a double feature, but decided it would unfairly influence this review. It might be sporting to pit Death Wish against one of the sequels, but the Don Siegel original is in its own league.


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