Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Death Wish 3

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“All the animals come out at night—whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash the scum off the streets.” —Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver


There are basically two types of sequels. The first kind, and by far the rarest, is a legitimate continuation of a story, picking up where the last film left off and advancing the characters and mythology much like the later chapters of a book. Think The Godfather, Part II or the second two Lord Of The Rings movies, or even the bloated Pirates Of The Caribbean sequels.  The second kind may or may not attempt continuity, but its primary job is to do the same thing audiences liked the first time, only more of it. Going back to the well again, with diminishing returns, is the reason sequels are nearly always worse than the original. But anyone schooled in Hong Kong action movies knows that with great excess comes great opportunity; the push to go further and do more can be a creative boon, leading to transcendent outrageousness that would be inconceivable in a non-sequel. Police Story and Police Story 2 laid the grounds for Michelle Yeoh to jump a motorcycle onto a moving train in the third, and it wasn’t until the second Drunken Master that Jackie Chan fought on hot coals, or took on a hundred axe-wielding assassins at a teahouse.

All of which brings me to Death Wish 3, the bugfuck second sequel to Charles Bronson’s off-brand Dirty Harry vehicle. Based on the novel by Brian Garfield—who denounced the movie and its sequels, claiming they glorified the vigilantism he meant to condemn—the original 1974 Death Wish has a raw, sick simplicity. Bronson plays Paul Kersey, a New York City architect. Hooligans attack his family, killing his wife and raping his daughter. The police all but shrug their shoulders, Paul arms himself with a nickel-plated revolver, and muggers across the city are suddenly being felled by an ordinary guy who’s taken the law into his own hands. Death Wish’s famous tagline (“Vigilante, city style—judge, jury, and executioner”) makes it clear that Paul’s quest for revenge isn’t tarnishing his soul. He’s speaking for us, the law-abiding types who are fed up with the criminal kind, and fantasize about a Second Amendment solution to our ineffectual justice system.

For decency’s sake, Death Wish didn’t need to up the ante, much less get four sequels over the course of 20 years to do it. But if there weren’t that pressure for Paul Kersey to expand his operations from random muggers to entire urban neighborhoods—and a production outfit like Cannon to supply the pyrotechnics—a movie as deeply, hilariously deranged as 1985’s Death Wish 3 wouldn’t have been possible. Everything abhorrent about Death Wish—its inner-city stereotyping and casual racism; its embrace of lawlessness and righteous bloodletting; Paul’s rancid transformation from naïve, bleeding-heart liberal into gun-toting angel of vengeance—gets blown up to such a grotesque degree that no sane person could mistake its world for the real one. It’s like a paranoid right-wing small-towner’s vision of what the big city is like: a gang-infested war zone, lorded over by the cast of Breakin’.

Death Wish 3 is a movie Travis Bickle would like, if he could ever peel himself away from Times Square porno houses. All the animals do come out at night—and sometimes, brazenly, during the day—but Death Wish 3 doesn’t get as specific as Bickle about the whores, “buggers,” junkies, and so on. Here, the urban scum falls under the broad umbrella of creeps who terrorize hard-working, law-abiding citizens, and kill other creeps in internecine creep wars. The creeps deserve to die en masse, indiscriminately, for crimes ranging from rape and murder to purse-snatching. They have no stories, no backgrounds, no individual moral sense or degrees of guilt. They need to be wiped out in the Biblical storm of Bickle’s imagining, or, barring that, they need to be on the receiving end of Paul Kersey’s .475 Wildey Magnum, a gun that makes Dirty Harry look like the world’s biggest pussy.

The opening of Death Wish 3 finds Paul bussing into the big bad city to rescue his friend, an aging Korean War veteran who’s tired of handing over protection money to local gang members, including Bill S. Preston, Esq. from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Paul arrives too late to save his buddy from a stabbing, but with the tacit approval of the local police chief (Ed Lauter), he decides to stick around and help clean up a neighborhood where crime is up 11 percent, in spite of the weenie cops’ increased efforts to contain it. Staked out in a building populated mostly by elderly tenants under siege, Paul teams up with crusty landlord Bennett (Martin Balsam)—another goddamned war veteran, with some old-fashioned firepower of his own—to fight back against local thugs. Chief among those thugs is Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy), a snarling, cold-eyed butcher with a reverse mohawk, and The Giggler (Kirk Taylor), a purse-snatcher who’s faster than a speeding bullet. Unless, that is, the speeding bullet is coming from the chamber of Paul’s .475 Wildey Magnum.


“They killed The Giggler, man!” Let us all pause and take a moment of quiet reflection for The Giggler, who died as he lived, drawn helplessly to anything that can be carried on a strap. Okay, let’s move on.

The Giggler sequence is the stuff of cult legend, but the larger picture of urban crime is what makes Death Wish 3 transcendently, gloriously, surreally offensive and compelling. The good citizens of this roach-infested block literally cannot walk two steps outside their homes without being harassed or mugged at best, raped or killed at worst. Just going for groceries is a pointless Sisyphean ordeal, because people carrying a sack under each arm have no chance of safely covering the distance from the corner store to their shitty apartments. (And when gang members abduct, rape, and kill a young Latina woman, this highly moral film plays it for the requisite grindhouse titillation.) The situation gets so bad that people aren’t even safe in their locked homes; creeps so routinely break through the windows that Paul takes to booby-trapping them with spring-loaded boards and nails. It’s telling how much the film sees the creeps as animals drawn to mischief like mice to hunks of cheese; The Giggler, for one, just couldn’t help himself.


Meanwhile, cue up the love theme for Death Wish 3, because when he isn’t blasting creeps, Paul is ready to accept the love of a good woman. She happens to be a public defender, but don’t get alarmed: She hates her job, hates the city, and wants to move away at the earliest opportunity. “Sometimes I feel like I’m on the wrong side, defending creeps,” she says. “Damn it! People have got to fight back, and hard!” (Truly, she offers poor defendants the best representation money can’t buy.) The two scenes where she and Paul get together are wonderfully perfunctory, highlighted by a date where she makes chicken for him and professes to love sports, and he claims to enjoy opera (“it’s restful”), a statement he later admits was a joke. (Good one, Paul. Also: Whew! You are not an effete panty-wearer.) Chicken, sports, opera: It’s a love story for the ages, until Fraker and the gang cut it hilariously short.


The fiery death of Pretty Public Defender is the catalyst that leads Death Wish 3 from the second act to the third, which dispenses with the comparatively authentic urban realism of the first hour and breaks out the rocket launcher, the firebombs and grenades, and a .30-caliber Browning machine gun from World War II. No more cute little Nikon-camera lures or springboard traps: As Paul says, “It’s like killing roaches. You have to kill ’em all, otherwise what’s the use?” (Though most exterminators will tell you that it’s more effective long-term to appease the roaches through federally funded social programs, like adult education or midnight basketball.) Like bugs, the creeps come in waves as Bennett peppers them with machine-gun fire from the fire escape, and Paul, kneeling with his .457 on open ground, as impervious to gunfire as Superman, takes them out one by one. It’s a classic Cannon Films bloodbath, subbing a New York City neighborhood in for the tropical war zones of other Cannon fodder like the Missing In Action movies, as if these things were somehow interchangeable.

Death Wish 3 is a flagrantly offensive movie. If the original Death Wish could be called a conservative fantasia, this is its crazy birther cousin, full of conspiracy theories no one takes very seriously. (The first three Death Wish movies were all directed by Michael Winner, whose name inspired my favorite Leonard Maltin quote, on Appointment With Death: “Another loser from Winner.”) It’s as cartoonish a picture of urban gangs as The Warriors, which is a large part of Death Wish 3’s cult appeal. Goodness knows, the first Death Wish had its distortions, but a person could legitimately mistake its mean streets for the real New York, which did have a serious crime problem, and plenty of people connected with its reactionary vibe. Rape scene aside, Death Wish 3 is palatable viewing, even oddly comforting in the myriad ways it gets street life outrageously, cluelessly, miraculously wrong. Advantage: creeps.


Coming Up:
October 14: Kung Fu Hustle
October 28: House (Hansu)
November 11: Clue