Retro Review: Death Wish (1974).
Despite a solid performance from Charles Bronson, this red meat vigilante flick is bloody and under-cooked.
Critics of the new remake of Death Wish savaged the movie as a pro-gun diatribe with an overtly political agenda. I think they missed their target by about 50 years. The original Death Wish is a shamelessly right-wing piece of propaganda that uses its pulpy exploitation formula to roundly denigrate “bleeding heart liberals” and celebrate macho modern day cowboys who dispense true American justice from the barrel of a gun. The only thing that saves this thin polemic from brisk dismissal is the performance from Charles Bronson, who manages to make his vigilante into an interesting character study.
Death Wish (1974).
Paul Kersey is a mild and generous man with a lovely family. While his friends chide him for being a softy on crime and a “bleeding heart” type of guy, he gets along in the big city just fine. That all changes one day when a trio of punks follow his wife and daughter home from the grocery store and brutally attack them. With his wife dead and his daughter traumatized, Paul is forced to reevaluate his philosophy. A trip out west introduces him to the notion of frontier justice, and he returns home with a gun and the resolve to use it against the lawless elements in his city.
“He Seemed Like Such a Nice Guy…”
Charles Bronson is one of those action heroes who always seemed to me to be better than the roles he got. Sure, he made classics like The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, and The Great Escape, but he never got the same level of respect as contemporary stars like Clint Eastwood. In Death Wish, he takes what could have been a stereotypical action role and gives it some depth.
His Paul Kersey is a profoundly different man at the beginning and the end of the drama. As he shifts from liberal softy to deadly vigilante, Bronson shows a man who registers the magnitude of his situation and responds accordingly. He waffles about arming himself, shows frustration in his own perceived weakness, and almost breaks down completely after his first confrontation. By the end, he’s the cool and lethal action star who would go on to populate four really terrible sequels, but here we actually see him as a deeply troubled man first.
Red State, Blue State.
Bronson’s portrayal of Kersey is almost too good for this movie, as he actually makes “bleeding heart liberal” Paul into a sympathetic and admirable character. That’s probably not what the director wanted, since the rest of the movie is such a nakedly political exploitation film.
The amount of times Paul is called an “insert pejorative” liberal in the first act makes it clear which side of the aisle this film is on. Rugged individualism and machismo is the ideal. Despite Paul’s accomplishment, he is a failure because he can’t “do the one thing a man is expected to do, protect his family.” His come to Jesus moment is at a goddamn hockey western reenactment, and the film doesn’t bat an eyelash about learning the art of being a man from fake cowboys shooting fake guns in a fake bank robbery. If the film had a self-aware bone in its body, it could have been a masterpiece. It could have talked about crime, policing, race, and our complicated relationship in America to guns. Instead, its basically only good for fap material for Wayne LaPierre.
The author of Death Wish had plenty of criticism for the film adaptation. He felt it totally missed the point of his book, that striking back at violence through violence only leads to more tragedy and the erosion of your soul. I have to say that I agree with him, and Charles Bronson probably did too. His performance stands head and shoulders above the actual script, showing a man who is misled into accepting violence at his lowest moment, and how it turns him into a monster. When Bronson cocks his finger at a potential victim and smiles his murderous smile, it’s easy to see him as a cocky action hero. What he really is is darker, a broken man who gets high on murder, an American Psycho-esque character.
There are pieces of that narrative left laying around the movie, but the film is determined to take the easy way out. It uses sex and violence to titillate instead of shock, and it squanders the moral lesson hiding under the surface in favor of whispering wish-fulfillment fantasies to people frustrated by a lack of power in their life. While it’s nowhere near as bankrupt as the series would go on to become, it is perhaps all the more tragic because it could have been something truly thought provoking.