Death Wish 3 (Michael Winner, 1985)
It’s back to the Big Apple for reluctant (though, as always, as soon as he gets back on that horse, he’s as greedy as a newborn baby at momma’s tit) vigilante Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), returning to the streets with a vengeance (and a wildly impressive coterie of heavy artillery), not only to avenge the brutal murder of his Korean War vet buddy, but to act as muscle for his dead bud’s community, besieged as it is from gangs.
Set in an absurdly bonkers war zone where every young woman is under threat of rape and boyfriend with murder each time they cross the street for an ice cream cone, an urban setting evocative more of an abandoned series of run-down buildings on a large back studio lot (in England where it was shot) than anything remotely approaching a New York City community (no matter how many times the film’s delusional, on-another-planet director proudly claimed its authenticity), a credulity-stretching Charlie Bronson, who, at 64, is more than a tad over the action star believability expiry date (I somehow still love his craggy-faced tough-guy persona though, no matter how many roles he expressionlessly sleepwalks through – and there’s a lot – and how many street thugs I have a hard time believing he’s capable of taking on in hand to hand combat as herein) as he somehow mail orders entire arsenals of bazookas and heavy artillery for his war against the punks (Kersey’s come far from his conscientious objector war years, that’s for sure) and goofy, 80’s colourful, over-the-top street thugs looking more like extras out of “Fame” than anything remotely menacing (one of the more egregious examples is the super-buff black gang member who seems unable to make any move without it seeming like a sensational dance number), this latest entry in the saga of everyone’s favourite street-justice seeking vigilante Kersey is an obviously deliberate decision to move away from the grim tone of the previous entries into the all-out gung-ho right-wing reactionary celebrations of that time.
Of course, the original Death Wish was no progressive plea for understanding, but at least there was no demonstrative search for feverish applause by having the final despicable (apparently, there’s no other kind) main street thug literally blown into smithereens and the entire, finally-freed street community leading the watching audience in celebration (in fact, there is no main villain of Death Wish, which is a main reason, along with a surprisingly effective emotional central performance by Bronson, that renders it a fairly mature film despite the easy sensational fear-pandering at its core). Then again, there was no sign of Reagan’s favourite Rambo around during the first Death Wish for inspiration.
I will hand it to Winner and say, as dopy and absurd as this third entry is, it’s better directed than the second effort (not the most ringing of endorsements as “II” was quite shockingly inept as if Winner simply didn’t give a shit at times) but not able to create much emotional heft (or anything beyond the most rudimentary interest). Former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s nicely textured score in part two is re-arranged this time around, with no new material and with far less successful results (not that the initial score didn’t have its wonky bits, but it also had much more effective moments of creating a gritty mood).
Great character actors Martin Balsam (with a long impressive Hollywood career, including Psycho and 12 Angry Men fame) and Ed Lauter (can’t name a film off the top of my head but, take it from me, he usually plays a good cop – except, unfortunately, herein) both clearly are slumming for the paycheck (with all the explosions and stunts, it’s clearly the largest budgeted Death Wish so far so I can only hope their fees were raised accordingly as well) and neither particularly redeems himself (Lauter is so intense and abrasive — first kicking the shit out of Kersey after he gets arrested after being mistaken for having killed his Korean War buddy, then being in awe of him after realizing he’s the famous vigilante all the cops romanticize — I was sure he’d end up being revealed as a corrupt bad guy by the end, but nope).
Winner isn’t one to be scared off by the sensationally lurid, and has a field day upping the anti on the rape/violence quotient from the previous two films. Menahem Golan, the co-head of the venerated and notorious 80’s shlock factory Cannon Films that produced the sequels excitedly claimed about “3”, ‘It has a rape in it like you’ve never seen!’ (I mean, you got hand it to guys like Golan and Winner – they may be openly shameless in their hucksterism, but, man, did they have admirable chutzpah… and a modicum of talent showing through on occasion). Bronson’s Kersey has moved from a full human being in the first to this massive gun toting (with his absurd .475 magnum clearly meant to be a bigger dick – I mean, gun – then the .44 magnum Clint Eastwood’s Inspector Callahan had been whipping out over in the Dirty Harry series) cartoon character (who, for whatever strange reason, they have terribly dressed in the first 2/3rds of the film, with his ugly brown sweater, before donning the much more formidable all-black for the explosive finale), setting up complex booby traps to literally knock the teeth out of bad guys sneaking into people’s houses to rob them (speaking of the houses, the apartment interiors of these homes absolutely do not match the supposed New York street exteriors).
For all the explosions, rape and murder going on in this exceedingly high body-count effort (everything from people thrown off buildings, burning bodies with children dancing around them, gang members blown off motorcycles, Kersey’s new young lady love interest – a relationship with zero chemistry or believability — not only getting killed by street thugs out to get him, but rolled down a hill in her car into on-coming traffic – and a very awkwardly presented off-cue explosion), it’s all one note, with little sense of momentum created. The grand large-scale finale in which the remaining gang members join together to fight it out against Kersey and the neighborhood folks who join them (little aside — can’t quite understand, with that arsenal at his disposal, why Kersey couldn’t have given up just one of those bomb-lobbing guns to his accomplice Hector against the thugs, at least to make the local kid look a little more imposing that with that little, entirely unimpressive self-created pipe-gun) goes on for so long (with it often getting confused on what exactly is happening or who is close to who and shooting at who) and becomes so repetitive it grows tiresome.
Yes, it’s better directed than the second (and much more crazed and 80’s comic book explosive), but it’s also the weakest of the three so far. That familiar theory of lesser returns on sequels is definitely playing out so far.