Death Wish (1974) is a gritty, thought-provoking, vigilante crime drama, steeped in realism, a product of the time that perfectly captures the United States public’s concerns with the alarming rise of street crime. Critics vilified its depiction of vigilantism as supporting it, branding it a right-wing wish fulfilment fantasy. Brian Garfield (1939 – 2018), the author of the 1972 novel of the same name the film is based on, agreed that director Michael Winner (1935 – 2013), and screenwriter Wendell Mayes (1919 – 1992), missed the point of the message he conveyed. This compelled Garfield to write Death Sentence, a follow-up to his book published in 1975. The 2007 James Wan directed film sporting the same title cites it as its source material, but it has very little in common with it, featuring a completely different storyline, although, the novelist praised it for making the same point as he did, by damning taking the law into your own hands and not advocating violence.
I disagree with Brian Garfield and the other detractors of Death Wish, as it is far more a damnatory commentary on vigilante violence than a glorification of it. The portrayal of Paul Kersey by the late, great Charles Bronson (1921 – 2003) is of a mild-mannered liberal pacifist, who despite serving in the Korean War was a conscientious objector serving in the medical corps, and is now an architect living in Manhattan, New York City. After Kersey’s wife, Joanna (Hope Lange), is murdered, and his daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) is raped, her trauma leaving her in a catatonic state and an elective mute in a mental hospital, the consequences of his frustrations with the failings of society and an imperfect justice system drastically changes his perception of what is wrong and what is right. This leaves us with doubts in our minds as to what his real motives are.
This is seen in the film’s Wild West theme, as Kersey descends into a crazy cowboy fantasy. After the attack on his family, he encounters a mugger at night. He fights back with a homemade weapon, an improvised blackjack made with a sock and two rolls of coins, causing the mugger to run away, and leaving Kersey shaken yet energized by the confrontation. His bosses then send him on a business trip to Tucson, Arizona, for a residential development project. He witnesses a tourist reconstruction of an Old West shoot out during a bank robbery, and then on a firing range, he reacquaints himself with the use of firearms, which he was taught to handle well by his hunter-father, who was killed in a hunting accident and the reason for Kersey’s previous pacification. Before he returns to New York, his client Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), who was impressed with his pistol marksmanship on the range, gives him a parting gift, and when he returns home, he sees that it is a nickel-plated Colt Police Positive revolver with a box of ammunition.
This is the protagonist’s turning point, as he begins prowling the streets as bait to attract muggers, hunting and killing the same criminal element that has caused his grief and ruined his life, due to the police’s inability to capture the perpetrators. Kersey falls into a delusional state of mind. In the film’s climax, while badly injured, during a standoff with a mugger, he challenges them to ‘fast draw his gun’. Det. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia, 1920 – 1992), the NYPD Inspector who has been investigating Kersey’s vigilante killings, asks him to leave town while he is in hospital, to which he smiles and asks, “By sundown?” Ochoa was told to do so by the district attorney and the police commissioner. They do not what the statistics to get out that there has been a drastic drop in street crime due to Kersey’s vigilantism, and his arrest will only make him a martyr in the public’s eyes, fearing that he will influence others to do the same. In the final scene, Kersey arrives at Chicago Union Station. He notices a gang of thugs harassing a young woman, and he happily looks on. When the hoodlums walk away, he goes over to help her with the parcels she has dropped, they look back and make obscene gestures to him, and he makes a finger gun at them with much glee, signifying that he will continue what he started in New York. The picture then fades out. Kersey is now living in a psychotic fantasy world, enjoying his vigilantism work, with little morality in his notion of justice, and we question what his true intentions really were all along.
In 1980, The Cannon Group, Inc. (1967 to 1994) bought the rights to the Death Wish property from producer Dino De Laurentiis for $200,000 to produce a sequel, in the hopes that it would spawn a franchise as a vehicle for their newly contracted star Bronson to continue reprising one of his most famous roles. De Laurentiis also negotiated payments for himself, his co-producers on the original film, Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts, and Brian Garfield, which included payments for each prospective sequel. Garfield was set as the screenwriter to adapt Death Sentence, with early production marketing suggesting this as it used the same title. However, producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were unsatisfied that it would make for a good enough film, so they purchased the rights to his characters to allow them to create their own take on a follow-up, simply titled Death Wish II, with screenwriting duties given to David Engelbach. Cannon co-owner Golan was originally attached to direct, but Charlies Bronson insisted Michael Winner should return, who had not had a box office hit since Death Wish.
Death Wish II (1982) is a reinvention of Kersey’s character, a ‘reboot’ of the concept, if you will, before the term was even coined. Completely redefined, his complexity and ambiguous motives are stripped away, replaced with a one-note merciless angel of death, in a balls out, gonzo exploitative, straightforward urban action revenge thriller. No longer is his modus operandi targeting random muggers, here he is after five specific criminals belonging to a gang that has raped and murdered his daughter Carol, and kind housemaid. The original film took a more realistic approach. Kersey was not present when Jeff Goldblum and his gang of freaks invaded his apartment and attacked his family, so he never would have found them with such little to go on, and would not even know if it was them if he somehow crossed paths with them in such a massive city as New York. Here Kersey sees the attackers, and if we can suspend our disbelief that he is so easily able to find them in a city as enormous as Los Angeles, it is an immensely satisfying and emotionally rewarding experience to see Kersey take stone-cold retribution on these evil scumbags. While this sequel is less intriguing, it succeeds in its entertainment value, with Winner shifting from thoughtful drama to a darker and nastier affair, turning up the violence to a considerable level, reaching the heights of outright exploitation thrills. Engelbach’s screenplay only has one purpose, to make the tragic character of Kersey one of the unluckiest protagonists in cinematic history. The writer strings together horrific events for his plight that seeks our reactions of shock, revulsion, and anger, which leads to his brutal revenge on the low-lives who have wronged him, as we root for him to do it, and punch the air when he puts the filth out of their misery.
Although this belated follow-up was released eight years after the first film, the story takes place six years later. In Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987), it is mentioned that Kersey’s wife was murdered in 1975, which puts the setting of the original a year after its release, and that his daughter was killed in 1981, which means the events in this first sequel take place a year prior to its release. It does not follow through with the previous film’s set-up in its final scene as Kersey has not carried on with his vigilante ways, and is not residing in Chicago. He is now living in Los Angeles because Kersey met an old friend in the Windy City who owns a radio station called KABC in L.A., so he transferred to The City of Angels to work on a big project for a new building for his client friend’s station. Kersey has recovered from his shattered life and moved on, and it is all going well for him. He has a girlfriend, Geri Nichols, a news reporter for the radio station, played by Bronson’s real life wife, the terribly wooden Jill Ireland (1936 – 1990). Kerseys’ daughter Carol, now played by Robin Sherwood, is still mute, but has been uttering sentences for the past five weeks, and is gradually coming out of her catatonia. Screenwriter Engelbach has Kersey pick up the pieces after his tragic misfortune, putting his life back together for a fresh start, just for it to be broken into pieces again. This gives our protagonist his motivation to drive the narrative forward and to draw our empathy for his mission of vengeance.
The title sequence is made up of aerial shots to establish the setting of Los Angeles, accompanied by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s awful cheese ridden main theme, with a mix of synthesizers and long guitar wanking. Towards the end of the credits, we hear over this the diegetic sound of a radio news report about the escalating crime rate statistics; heavy-handed messaging in a very black and white film. We then see that this is coming from a radio set in the living room of Kersey’s house, where he is waiting for Geri to pick him up to go see Carol at the hospital, while his housekeeper Rosario (Silvana Gallardo, 1953 – 2012) prepares a meal for later. It turns out that it was Geri’s news report on KABC in a pre-recorded broadcast. The three of them have a day out together that includes some beautiful and tender moments between father and daughter, which makes the impending tragedy all the more heartbreaking. A gang of five punks steal Kersey’s wallet while he is alone waiting in line for ice cream. Failing to get it back after cornering one of them in an ally, Kersey goes back to Geri and Carol, telling them he must have left his wallet at home. The group of degenerates gets his address from his driver’s license and drive to his house in a van, while Rosario is still alone inside.
What follows in the uncut version is an extremely violent home invasion gang rape clocking in at three minutes, a torturous experience in one of the most prolonged graphic sexual assaults ever committed to celluloid. It is a horrifying sequence that burns into our minds, deliberately going all the way to antagonize our hostile reactions towards the soon to be victims of Kersey’s vengeful wrath. It is disturbing how director Winner shoots it. For the first film, he walked the line in how he depicted sexual violence by giving us just enough to show the true ugliness of this heinous crime, only dipping his toe in the waters of exploitation. Here he dives right in at the deep end, filming five different versions in six gruelling days, much of which was improvised in an over the top rough nature, treated as a grand set-piece event. There are no limits to the sadistic humiliation and violation Rosario is subjected to. She is gagged, her clothes are ripped off, four of the scumbags take turns forcing themselves inside her in various positions, with copious amounts of her full-frontal nudity, one of them, Cutter (Lawrence Fishburne), whips her with a belt, and gang leader Nirvana (Thomas F. Duffy) makes her perform oral on him. Gallardo’s performance is bold and brave, her horrified facial expressions and anguished cries are thoroughly convincing. In a thoughtful and responsible treatment, she was made to look much older. In an interview with the website version of Cinema Retro, titled The Women of Death Wish II, dated 18th August 2007, she told them, “They had me looking very non-attractive because they didn’t want to make it seem like [my character] was bringing [the rape] on.”
While Geri has gone off to do an interview, Kersey returns to the house with Carol. He is beaten and knocked unconscious, and when Rosario reaches for the phone to call for help, Nirvana hits her twice in the head with a crowbar, killing her. The gang takes Carol, as they are concerned she could identify them to the police, and this leads to the other rape of the film, which is juxtaposed to the putridness of what we have just seen, with a strange sensual tone. In a night setting, the gang is hiding out in an abandoned warehouse, and while we hear a more effective part of Page’s soundtrack – surreal out-worldly sounds, Carol sits on the ground motionless, as Punkcut (E. Lamont John, 1955 – 1984) spreads her legs, and she just stares at him. He slowly unbuttons her blouse, undoes her bra, and gently fondles her breasts. Taking down her panties, he lays her down, and penetrates her with long slow strokes, while caressing her breasts and sucking on her nipples. Creepily, the rest of the gang leeringly looks on. It is as if Michael Winner is challenging us, tricking us into thinking that we are watching soft-core eroticism, making us forget that it is actually sexual molestation, which we may find momentarily titillating, but forces us in its aftermath to question our own morality for looking at what is rape through a voyeuristic perspective. This weird sensualized rape of Carol is followed by her grisly demise. When Punkcut is done and gets off her, she buttons back up her blouse, and just as Jiver (Stuart K. Robinson) is about to have a go, she suddenly gets up and runs away when his back is turned. They chase after her until she jumps through a window, and is then impaled on the spiked iron fence below.
Back at Kersey’s house, Geri turns up. Unable to let herself in with her key, she rings the doorbell, which brings him back around to consciousness, and when he unbolts the door and lets her in, they discover Rosario dead on the floor. When the police arrive, the inspector leading the investigation, Lt. Mankiewicz (Ben Frank, 1934 – 1990), asks Kersey about a similar incident that happened in New York, and Charles Bronson delivers a throwaway line. This is about how the muggers followed his wife and daughter home when they were shopping, and the police had good descriptions of the assailants, but it did no good. This is not true, a huge continuity error, as Carol’s catatonic state prevented her from looking at the mugshots and identifying them, and there were unclear descriptions that came from the employees of the grocery store from where Goldblum and his cronies followed the mother and daughter. The screenwriter purposely retconned this to give Kersey the motivation he needs as he has a strong feeling the police will fuck it up again and he cannot let this happen.
This is the set-up, and now it is time for Kersey to dispense his brand of bloody justice. After Carol’s funeral, he keeps himself busy at work and continues seeing Geri during the day. At night, he goes about his revenge. He takes a handgun he has kept hidden in a compartment in his bedroom wardrobe and drives downtown. There he goes to a thrift shop and buys clothes to fit in with the street life, including a black fisherman beanie, rents a dingy little room for his base of operations, and begins to prowl the streets for the evil scum that have torn his life apart yet again. In the first act, downtown’s dregs of society invaded his happy life in the brightness of uptown L.A.’s daytime, now he is on their turf at night-time seeking them out. These scenes are where Jimmy Page’s background score works at its best, with sharp electronic stings whenever Kersey appears on screen, and there are great visuals of his large shadows falling across the city. Together with his new look, this gives him a cool, dark, enigmatic anti-hero presence, very different to the previous film. Winner perfectly captures the sleaziness of Los Angeles’ rundown parts of the period, with porno theatres, mission centres, and the general low-living, creating an inner-city atmosphere similar to Martin Scorsese’s New York in Taxi Driver (1976).
Kersey deals out his retribution in more elaborate action set-pieces compared to his shootings of the muggers in the original, which was rooted in realism. It makes for gratifying entertainment, as we see Bronson doing what he does best by blasting away the bad guys that have done him wrong. There is a laugh out loud moment during a shoot-out, when the stupid Cutter tries to protect his face from gunfire by holding up his ghetto blaster, only for Kersey to blow it apart. Bronson gets some great lines too, like when just before shooting the first punk he finds and kills, Stomper (Kevyn Major Howard), when referring to the crucifix necklace he is wearing –
Paul Kersey: “You believe in Jesus?”
Stomper: “Yes, I do.”
Paul Kersey: “Well, you’re gonna meet him.”
David Engelbach could not have done much research into street crime in preparation for writing his screenplay. When do you ever see multi-racial gangs like the one here? Their actions are questionable, as they hang around on street corners waiting to mug someone for their wallet, but later in the film, they have moved up quickly to big drug deals and weapons buying, and even take a public bus on their way to the meeting point of that last business transaction. All this is so unrealistic, but the actors do a solid job portraying the gang, hamming it up to make for very entertaining villains, who we long to see get their comeuppance.
We see the welcome return of Vincent Gardenia as the constant common cold sufferer, world-weary, Frank Ochoa. This sub-plot fits in nicely with the proceedings and helps to connect it to the events in the last film. He is sent by his heads in New York to stop Kersey’s vigilante ways again to prevent him from being arrested, as so to avoid him spilling the beans about them letting him go. Ochoa is a great memorable character, who is neither a bad cop, nor a crusading one, but he is always determined to get his job done, and Gardenia’s whimsical performance brings some much-needed comic relief. Other humorous aspects can be seen with the ludicrous Mankiewicz, who is hilariously partial in putting off medical assistance to injured witnesses to Kersey’s vigilantism, be they his criminal victims, or innocent citizens he has helped.
The weak link is the romance sub-plot between Kersey and Geri, as these scenes interfere with the pacing and are terribly written. Geri never once refers to the very recent rape and murder of Kersey’s daughter, showing little sympathy towards his grief, and is instead more concerned about complaining about not seeing him enough, and setting updates. This makes her to be an unlikable character and ruins any emotional lending to their relationship that we are supposed to feel. Husband and wife Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland worked together a stonking sixteen times, with Ireland not getting much work outside of her hubby’s films, and it is easy to see why, as she was talentless, and it is strange they have zero chemistry here when they were in love in real life. These scenes are the most boring, and to make it worse, Page’s hit or miss soundtrack gets very stinky here, with its corny and dated romantic cues. Overall, his composition is extremely lacklustre compared to Herbie Hancock’s excellent jazz score for the first film.
John Carpenter fans will spot in a small but memorable cameo, Charles Cyphers (1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, 1978’s Halloween, 1980’s The Fog, 1981’s Escape from New York). He plays a pivotal role in determining the film’s conclusion, as state hospital attendant Donald Kay. Kersey, disguised as a doctor, goes in to get the last remaining gang member Nirvana, pretending to be his therapist, which breaks out into a blistering fight. When Kersey dispatches Nirvana, Donald catches him, and there is a classic exchange of dialogue –
Paul Kersey: “He raped and killed my daughter.”
Donald Kay: “I read about it. I’ll give you three minutes until I ring the alarm.”
[Kersey looks at him, caught off-guard]
Donald Kay: “You’re wasting time.”
As a faithful companion piece to the themes presented in Death Wish, this sequel is a disappointment. Although, while far from perfect, it is a deep down and dirty piece of exploitation, oozing sleazy atmosphere, with an infamous shocking first act that is very hard to watch, going to some very dark harrowing places, but the next hour is downright entertaining with trashy thrills. Much like how the original film was a product of its time, Death Wish II is very much a product of its own time. It does not shy away from painting a grimy picture of how society’s ills had escalated at this time, and it encapsulates everything that is loved by action fans when it comes to the genre’s violent flicks of the early 1980s. It is quintessential exploitative revenge.