DEATH WISH (1974)
Directed by Michael Winner
After his wife is murdered and his daughter sexually assaulted after a break-in at his apartment, Paul Kersey decides enough is enough. With the chance of the police catching the killers slim, and sick of all the muggings and assaults happening in the city, Kersey takes the law into his own hands and deals a bit of vigilante justice against the scum of New York.
DEATH WISH may have been remade recently by horror director Eli Roth starring Bruce Willis but it could never hold a candle to Michael Winner’s 1974 classic starring tough guy Charles Bronson as our good guy turned deliverer of cold justice.
Set in seventies New York, DEATH WISH depicts a city teeming with thieves and scumbags mugging and threatening people on a daily basis. The good, decent people of the city become a prime target for the criminals with the police unable or uninterested in catching the culprits. The seediness of the dark streets, the grime seeping from every alleyway, really gives the impression that the innocent are doomed to a life of misery here. A prime example of the unruliness hitting NY’s streets is the attitude of the young men causing havoc in a grocery store, throwing things about whilst their elders are trying to do their weekly shop. It’s these hoodlums, led by a crazy, young Jeff Goldblum, who attack Paul Kersey’s family and lead him to exact revenge.
Vigilantes are never usually unhinged men and Paul Kersey is no exception. A quiet-natured architect, Kersey is a family man who cares about his city and seeks that justice be done for the crimes against his daughter and his beloved wife. Having been a conscientious objector during the Korean war, Kersey isn’t quick to retaliate but a lack of effort by the police and the increase in crime on the streets of New York urges Kersey to protect himself and soon he gets a taste for it. Whilst at first he’s repulsed by an act of self defence in which he leaves a man mortally wounded by gunshot, he begins to realise that he’s doing the whole of New York a favour by getting rid of these scumbags and it isn’t long before his vigilante actions inspire the community to also take the law into their hands rather than accept the role of the helpless victim. Kersey’s taste for vengeance only seems to grow as he seemingly goes out looking for trouble, almost baiting the bad guys to hassle him. This is particularly evident in a latter scene where he knows he’s being watched by the police but instead of laying low and keeping his head down for a bit, he sneak out the back door to retrieve his weapon and continue his vigilante acts for another night. You get a sense that Kersey has snapped and there’s no way back. For him, this is a way of life now and is the only way he can feel good about himself. He has nothing else to live for. His wife is dead and his daughter is a vegetable, traumatised by her experience. If he can’t catch the killers himself, he’ll make sure to rid the city of all the criminals in it. He even seems to enjoy going on the hunt for these predators. Whether or not he’s doing it for the people of the city, he’s certainly doing it for himself. As he peruses a pile of magazines, each featuring headlines about the vigilante, it doesn’t seem as though he’s acknowledging his notoriety or the fact that citizens of New York are calling him a hero. It’s like his actions are just another day in the office for him. Like a drug, he’s addicted and can’t stop. And in a way, can you blame him?
DEATH WISH is an entertaining film from the very beginning, particularly in the latter parts where the police chief is trying to discover the identity of the vigilante. However, the brutality of the sexual assault scene, even if very little is shown compared to movies nowadays, is savage enough to strike fear into your core. It’s also quite shocking to see one of the most adored actors in the film industry, a man who even had a giant statue of himself reclining shirt unbuttoned near Tower Bridge to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Jurassic Park, convincingly portray such a nasty character. Albeit brief, thankfully, Goldblum’s performance will definitely make you sit up straight.
All in all, this is Charles Bronson’s movie. He personifies the character of Paul Kersey and takes you on his gruelling journey. Whether you agree with his actions or not, he won’t change his mind. Not even the police can deter his passion for vengeance. It’s of little surprise that his character goes on to hunt down more perpetrators in further sequels. It seems like the natural progression for this guy who’s well and truly snapped.
Do yourself a favour. Skip the remake and get your goggles on this bad boy.