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Even the funny Death Wish films are repugnantly fascist

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

“I’m not a Charles Bronson fan,” Charles Bronson told his Los Angeles Times interviewer Wayne Warga in 1975. “I don’t think I turned out the way I thought I would turn out when I was a kid. It’s a disappointment. I’m a disappointment to me. My image, my sound, everything else.” A little over two decades into his acting career, Bronson had firmly established his persona as a “hard man” and was widely considered one of the highest-paid (if not the highest-paid) stars of his era. One has to wonder to what extent Bronson’s candid distaste for himself, professional success aside, was an extension of the vile qualities of Death Wish, a film he defended but didn’t seem wild about. The franchise spanned two decades and three directors, from the 1974 original to 1994’s Death Wish V: The Face Of Death, by which point Bronson was 72 and scarcely credible as a remorseless angel of death. (In its review, Variety observed that he looked “mighty tired.”) With variations on who the exact target is, all installments share the same premise: Someone near and dear to architect Paul Kersey (Bronson) has been killed or sexually violated, forcing him to enact fatal retribution.

In 1974, Death Wish fit snugly into a wave of films depicting New York City (specifically Manhattan) at best wildly unpleasant and at worst an apocalyptic wasteland punctuated by random acts of potentially homicidal violence. Escalating from the comparatively anodyne garbage-strike, dysfunctional nightmare of 1970’s The Out-Of-Towners to the heroin junkies appropriating public squares in 1971’s Panic In Needle Park and the corrupt cops of 1973’s Serpico, there was nothing good to say for a city near bankruptcy. The year after Death Wish, New York prompted an infamous headline message from the president: “Ford to city: Drop dead.”

It’d be productive to pair summer 1974’s Death Wish on a double bill with that fall’s The Taking Of Pelham 123. Both rely heavily on the idea of the hellishness of the subway, a normative given. In Pelham, a subway car is hijacked and held ransom (none of the passengers even look up when the car stops mid-tunnel for no apparent reason, so used are they to routine transportation disruptions). In Death Wish, Kersey— angered by his wife’s murder and daughter’s rape by giggling goons—takes to the train at night, sitting with a newspaper and waiting for potential muggers. When they appear (and they always do), he shoots them point blank. Both films have implausibly graffiti-free subway cars, because the MTA thought graffiti was a mere passing trend and didn’t want to encourage it. Violent crime was evidently here to stay.

Wildly successful upon release, Death Wish was the culmination of a string of films in which Bronson honed his silent-and-deadly persona. Several of these—Chato’s Land, The Mechanic, The Stone Killer—were directed by Death Wish helmer Michael Winner, who was routinely referred to as one of the world’s worst directors for his combination of technical slumming and occasionally repugnant material. (He eventually retired from filmmaking and became a restaurant critic, writing a column called “Winner’s Dinners.”) However his Tory politics might have informed his output, it’s not clear that Winner had any real convictions about urban violence, vigilantism, or sexual assault; his work appears simply opportunistic. Whatever its demerits technically and morally, Death Wish is at least clear about its aims and gives the audience exactly what they came to see: a right-wing fantasy (for lack of a more nuanced political characterization) about standing your ground.

The opening makes it clear that living in a big city is itself a kind of death wish. We first see Kersey and his wife on vacation in Hawaii to the backdrop of ukuleles and tropical sounds; they return to Herbie Hancock’s harsh electronic chords and the title superimposed on a blood-red sun. There are two ways to navigate such a routinely violent landscape: You either shrink into your routine while trying to avoid trouble, or you actively “fight back.” Bronson forthrightly cops to a co-worker’s description of himself as a “bleeding-heart liberal,” responding, “My heart bleeds a little for the disadvantaged.” His interlocutor doesn’t bat an eye, declaring that all these criminal should be sent to “concentration camps,” and it’s the movie’s unsavory task to align Bronson and audiences with this unabashedly fascist point of view.

Author Brian Garfield was appalled to find out that his source novel—intended to portray the unraveling psyche of a man shaken by his loved ones’ violation—had been turned into a straight-up pro-vigilante tract. Kersey vomits after his first shooting, but from there on kills without mercy, always choosing his targets wisely. The press takes notice, with a Newsweek billboard wondering “Vigilantism! Can it stop urban crime?” and favorable coverage from New York magazine, Harper’s, and the Chicago Tribune. There are some token white muggers (notably, a young Jeff Goldblum), but the face of urban violence is more likely to be, say, an uncredited Denzel Washington. The movie disclaims any racism or pandering to those who want to enact violence against people of color: At a party, the complaint that those killed are disproportionately black draws an apparently unarguable sarcastic retort as to whether “racial equality among muggers” would be preferable.

The one-man entrapment/killing spree inspires Kersey’s fellow citizens, including a feisty black lady with a hatpin who fends off an attacker and a smirking crew of construction workers who say they “took care” of an assailant. Their presence is an unsubtle wink to the demographic behind 1970’s hard-hat riot, in which some 200 construction workers took on a thousand anti-Vietnam protestors four days after the Kent State shootings. Death Wish’s vision of rough urban justice (levied against both minorities and the suspiciously non-conformist clad) is reminiscent of 1970’s Joe, in which a businessman whose daughter has run off with dirty hippies forms an economically unlikely friendship with a blue-collar grunt. They share a murderous distaste for the counterculture and the general collapse of “moral values,” mingled with a barely concealed sexual interest in presumably loose young women. Joe was intended as social critique, but Death Wish merges both of these impulses by making sure viewers get a good long look at the exposed breasts of women being sexually assaulted, allowing a dose of T&A while asking you to deplore the actions enabling the view. Like its simultaneous disclaimers of racism and barely dog-whistle displays of same (it’s very much the film equivalent of “I’m not racist, but…”), it’s an untenable, plainly opportunistic combination. Audiences didn’t care; fed up with rough city living, they cheered Bronson on.

Eight years passed before the character’s resurrection at the hands of ever-opportunistic Cannon Films mavens Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, for whom quick, dirty, and cheap exploitation came naturally. This time Kersey is in Los Angeles (the franchise ping-pongs between the two coasts in every installment) and trying to avoid killing people. Nonetheless, he keeps right-wing radio on (“I can’t handle this,” his cleaning lady apologizes, and turns it off), and there’s little doubt that he’s about to pop off again. His daughter Carol (a different actress from the first installment; this movie can barely be bothered to care about its sacrificial lamb) is just starting to recover from her rape, and she smiles with overacted childlike glee when dad takes her to the park and buys her an ice cream. A rape scene ever more unpleasant than the first film’s culminates with her jumping out a window to her death (impaled on the fence below, no less).

In an effort to make Bronson’s character more sympathetic in this sequel (or at least less of a homicidal lunatic), he only hunts down and kills his daughter’s rapists. Motivated by his daughter’s death or not, Kersey’s definitely enjoying himself. “Do you believe in Jesus?” he asks one punk before his death. “Well, you’re gonna meet him.” But Kersey’s focus backfires; at one point he passes by a man being assaulted in an alley, pauses, then moves on. If there was ever an appropriate time to unleash fire, this would be it.

Death Wish III is probably the only film in the franchise that’s had a significant pop-cultural afterlife. While the first two Death Wish films retain currency in certain portions of the conservative blogosphere (Breitbart editor John Nolte is a big fan and has written about them repeatedly and obsessively over the years), they’re not syndication staples or affectionately recalled by and large. People seem to realize that they represent an understandable but particularly shameful impulse at a juncture in American life. Not so Death Wish III, semi-fondly remembered for being ridiculous in a prototypically “oh, the ’80s” kind of way. And while III is undoubtedly hilarious in its idiocy (a bad guy named The Giggler; Bronson blowing up the Big Bad with a rocket launcher), that comedy only serves to obscure the fundamental vileness of the franchise to which it belongs.

Kersey arrives back in New York on a bus, the opening credits padded out in classic grindhouse time-killing style with endless shots of him looking out the window and the banal view from the bridge. Following the murder of his friend, Kersey has an excuse to start cleaning up Brooklyn one “creep” at a time. The film’s endless use of this term as a catch-all refreshingly (by comparison) extends to a bunch of white gang members who look like rogue New Wavers; this franchise fears youth in all its non-business-suit forms. Kersey is cheered on in his blatant street killings by a sort of Sesame Street-esque coalition of what the film chooses to characterize as diversity: one elderly Jewish couple, one generically Eastern European couple, Martin Balsam, a properly polite Latino couple, and a random black kid who pops up from time to time to cheer “Right on!” The block that slays together stays together. Unabashedly cartoonish, Death Wish III is certainly easier to take than its predecessors, but it’s no less unsavory when you think about it. As Wikipedia blithely notes, this installment “re-establishes the murder of Kersey’s love interest by gang members as a film series tradition.” Just like Thanksgiving!

If Death Wish III is a warped variant on Sesame Street, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (the title presumably implying that now, finally, Bronson will stop messing about and really kill some people) is practically an extension of Nancy Reagan telling the youth to “Just say no.” Hired by a millionaire to wipe out a drug gang, Bronson sets about killing everybody involved, from lowly street dealers to the chemists whipping up coke in the lab. The film, again, is very clear about what it believes (or pretends to): “Anybody connected with drugs deserves to die,” Bronson announces before killing everybody in a room, which seems unnecessarily draconian.

Complicating matters is that Death Wish 4 is easily the best-made film in the franchise. J. Lee Thompson had long moved on from the ’60s peaks of Cape Fear and The Guns Of Navarone to a career of comfortable Cannon slumming, but he was easily a much more adept director than Winner (with whom Bronson had fallen out over the ridiculousness of the third film). The opening sequence—a woman in a parking garage, followed in a long, elegant panning shot around multiple corners while we wait for the other shoe to drop—isn’t that far from giallo, and the franchise momentarily starts to make sense: If this is just an excuse for setting up suspenseful action scenes, then the repugnance factor of encouraging macho fantasies fades away. But Death Wish 4 gets down to business as usual pretty rapidly (despite the sequence culminating in a Luke Skywalker-confronts-himself moment), and its cold efficiency hammers home the series’ fundamental unsavoriness in a new mode.

I’ll cop to not being able to revisit the fifth film for this piece (it’s not on Netflix Instant or Amazon), which probably is just as well. Death Wish V: The Face Of Death attempted to keep up with the times by placing Kersey in the middle of New York’s fashion scene, leading to a particularly ghastly scene in which a mobster smashes a model’s face in the mirror in order to permanently disfigure her. (To the last, this series seems to revel in the violence against women it’s ostensibly condemning.) Bronson was 72 and three TV movies (the A Family Of Cops trilogy, which is sort of along Blue Bloods lines) away from retirement. At this point, killing people on-screen seemed like a joyless reflex action.

What did the franchise leave us with? The first film represents a purgative national psychosis, while its follow-ups lack a similarly firm sense of purpose. As the target shifts from urban crime to generic bad guys, the idea of the films serving any kind of cathartic purpose fades away; there’s very little degree of difference between Death Wish 4 and, say, the generic Bronson-as-cop thriller 10 To Midnight. In recent years, the idea of a remake popped up, with a script from macho specialist Joe Carnahan (The Grey), but the idea makes little sense at this moment: It’d be like making an action movie with George Zimmerman as the hero. As the news ceaselessly reminds us, that impulse definitely hasn’t faded away. The best that can be said is at least Hollywood no longer celebrates it.

Final ranking:

1. Death Wish 4: The Crackdown

2. Death Wish 3

3. Death Wish

4. Death Wish II

5. Death Wish V: The Face Of Death