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

Death Wish pioneers a new action hero: the angry middle-aged vigilante

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Death Wish (1974)

Jeff Goldblum’s distinguished four-decade film career began memorably, with the actor howling, “I kill rich cunts like you!” at a terrified Oscar nominee in the first Death Wish movie. Goldblum’s first-ever screen credit is the gibbering, psychopathic “Freak #1,” and you can immediately tell it’s him. Bringing the same wild-eyed intensity that he’d show in dozens of later roles, Goldblum, along with two frantically giggling buddies, pose as grocery-store delivery boys to break into an apartment.


Once in, they beat up Hope Lange, Oscar-nominated for 1957’s Peyton Place, beating her up so badly that she later dies. They also sexually assault her character’s daughter, putting her into catatonic shock for the rest of the movie. One guy indiscriminately sprays graffiti all over the apartment and the people in it, leaving a swastika on the wall at one point. It’s a genuinely upsetting scene and also a ridiculous one. Goldblum and his friends don’t register as human. They’re more like goblins or orcs—subhuman vehicles for monstrous violence with no real goal or agency of their own.

That’s how the first Death Wish—and really, every subsequent Death Wish movie—treats its criminals. This isn’t a movie with a central villain, or even really one with a plot. Charles Bronson, Lange’s widow, spends the movie wandering around, indiscriminately killing subhuman muggers. His character Paul Kersey at one point rhapsodizes about “the old American custom of self-defense,” but self-defense seems to be a distant concern for him. He shoots criminals in the back. He shoots them when they’re down. He’s a serial killer, more or less, transformed into the hero of what would become an action franchise. And if vengeance was the goal he had in mind, he fails. After that one scene, we never see Goldblum or his friends again. Instead, we see Bronson wandering the streets, offering himself up as bait, and executing anyone who tries it with him.

Director Michael Winner based Death Wish on a 1972 Brian Garfield novel that puts forward the radical idea that it’s not a good idea to indiscriminately gun down criminals. The Death Wish movie, on the other hand, seems to be firmly on the side of Paul Kersey, the stone-faced vigilante.There are a few flashes of self-awareness in the movie, here and there. On a business trip to Arizona, we see Bronson absorbed in a cheesy Wild West stunt show, maybe absorbing its barely-there worldview. And by the end of the movie, he’s injured and vaguely deranged, spouting cowboy clichés to a would-be victim.

But Garfield still hated the movie that came out of his novel, so much that he wrote the later quasi-sequel Death Sentence as a sort of rebuke to the movie version. And watching the movie, it’s easy to see why Garfield might’ve had problems with it. For one thing, your vigilante is Charles Bronson, and it’s very difficult to root against Charles Bronson in a movie. And throughout the story, Winner seems to be making arguments that this wholesale slaughter is actually a good thing. Characters mention, again and again, how mugging rates sharply decline after Bronson hits the streets, and Bronson fixates on a news story about an elderly black lady, empowered by his blood thirst, who chases two assailants off with a hatpin. We never see the friends or families of Bronson’s victims; they might as well not exist. Even the movie’s police officers, tasked with shutting Bronson down, opt not to arrest him when they get the chance. They don’t, after all, want to turn him into a martyr. So instead, they send him out of town, where he’s ready to resume his killing. In the movie’s final shot, Bronson sees a gang of obnoxious punks in a Chicago train station, and he smiles and points a single finger-gun at them.

This is a movie with a point of view, and it’s a point of view that still seems scary today. The movie paints New York as a bleak, erratic hellscape, one where it’s nearly impossible to survive a walk through the park at night. The movie opens with Bronson and Lange on an idyllic Hawaiian vacation, and Herbie Hancock’s score abruptly switches to a sinister synth-blare the second they return home. The criminals, all generic multi-ethnic street punks, talk like screenwriting devices, not like human beings: “Gimme your money or I’ll bust you up!”

But all this struck a chord. In 1974, America was still reeling from Vietnam’s aftermath and from the generational culture wars that sprung up in its wake. Dirty Harry, three years earlier, gave us a hero cop who wouldn’t be constrained by the rigors of due process. But Death Wish goes a few steps farther, imagining an ordinary citizen who goes from sheltered liberal (“My heart bleeds a little for the underprivileged,” he actually says in an early scene) into a stone-faced murderer once he sees how real the evil around him is. That depiction would strike a chord. A few months before Death Wish hit theaters, Marvel introduced its not-dissimilar Punisher character, and he would become one of the comic company’s signature antiheroes in the years after. Meanwhile, Death Wish spawned four way-more-cartoonish sequels, as well as imitators like The Exterminator and Vigilante. And Bronson’s subway shooting in Death Wish would gain a scary real-life echo a decade later, when Bernhard Goetz shot four young black men on a New York subway car and later escaped almost all charges.

At the time, many critics looked at Death Wish, like Dirty Harry before it, as a dismaying and dangerous sign of its times. (Vincent Canby in The New York Times: “It’s a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers.”) And it would be hard to argue that Death Wish has been a force for good in the world, unless you grant it points for enabling the existence of 1985’s absurd and beautiful Death Wish 3. But Death Wish is, on its own merits, a strange and effective movie. It doesn’t hew too closely to the revenge-movie format that was still being established. We don’t get the satisfying scene of comeuppance against the men who destroyed Bronson’s family in the first place. And the movie takes its time getting to the killing spree. A pastoral interlude in Arizona takes practically forever, and the movie is nearly half over by the time Bronson kills somebody.


And yet the movie works, largely because of Bronson, one of the greatest action stars in the world by the early ’70s. Bronson had been a presence in movies for decades, working his way up from bit parts to important roles in ensemble pieces like The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape. He played the lead in Sergio Leone’s impossibly great Once Upon A Time In The West. And he made a slow transition to action-movie stardom. The movie that might’ve finally established his persona was 1972’s The Mechanic, an earlier effort from Death Wish director Winner. There, he was an ice-cold assassin, pulling off his hits without dialogue, letting his hard, lined face and his impassive, seen-it-all demeanor do all the talking.

Bronson’s character in Death Wish might come from a different world, but Bronson plays him the same way, barely reacting even when he learns of his wife’s death. Executing muggers, he generally looks bored, which only serves to make him seem that much more badass. The movie’s worst acting might be in the scenes where Bronson first kills, then comes home shaking or throwing up. Bronson never was the shaking type. And when he does start killing, it’s almost like he was waiting for the excuse. Bronson was 52 when he made the movie, and he always gives the impression that this isn’t his first murder spree.


The better Bronson movie of 1974 is Mr. Majestyk, an Elmore Leonard adaptation in which Bronson plays a tomato farmer who runs afoul of a mob hitman. Bronson’s a lot more believable as a hardbitten Western badass than as someone who had to go through a personal transformation to become a killer. But Death Wish was the movie that made money, that resonated enough to leave its mark on the history of action movies.

Case in point: In one of Bronson’s earliest kill scenes, he takes out three guys who have been beating up an old man in an alleyway. One of the people he shoots is a 20-year-old Denzel Washington, who gets no lines in his first-ever screen appearance. Decades later, Washington starred in The Equalizer, his very own Death Wish-style aging-vigilante movie. And as long as there are aging actors who carry themselves like believable killers, that Death Wish influence will live on.

Other noteworthy 1974 action movies: The big runner-up for 1974 is The Street Fighter, a brutal punch-up that introduced Japanese karate master Sonny Chiba to the world. The Street Fighter was the first movie that ever got an X rating for violence, and it presented a nastier, meaner way to present martial arts, a stark difference from the balletic fight scenes coming out of Hong Kong. (That same year, Chiba also made Return Of The Street Fighter, Sister Street Fighter, and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge. He was busy.)


With Foxy Brown, Pam Grier had a chance to develop her tough-as-hell persona and establish herself as something of a blaxploitation superhero. In The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, Walter Matthau got to play one of the all-time great ordinary guys pushed into heroism. In Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, Clint Eastwood was able to show that he could play a charming-but-taciturn small-time criminal nearly as well as he could play an avenging cop. And then there was the aforementioned Mr. Majestyk, maybe Charles Bronson’s greatest role.

1974 was also one of the all-time great years for car-chase movies, with Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and the original Gone In 60 Seconds, and it was a peak year for blaxploitation, as well. Jim Kelly, Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon co-star, stepped out on his own with the deeply entertaining Black Belt Jones, and he joined the all-star team of Jim Brown and Fred Williamson in Three The Hard Way. The Man With The Golden Gun was one of the better Roger Moore Bond movies, and Five Shaolin Masters was a great early example of an ensemble Shaw Brothers kung fu movie. With Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, Sam Peckinpah made a truly deranged action movie that might serve as the single most purely Peckinpah movie of the man’s career. And then there was McQ, which gave the world the surreal vision of John Wayne attempting his very own Dirty Harry rip-off.


Next time: Comedian Rudy Ray Moore reinvents himself as the kung-fu pimp superhero Dolemite and sets a new standard for low-budget DIY blaxploitation insanity.