WHEN ACTION FILMS HAD BALLS- DEATH WISH/ DEATH WISH 2

By: Anthony Francis

Michael Winner’s Death Wish and it’s sequel Death Wish 2 are two films that COULD NOT be made in today’s political and social climates., the way Winner designed them. 

1974’s “Death Wish” gave birth to a true anti-hero (who became a hero, cinematically speaking) Paul Kersey, a man who lost his wife and (eventually, in the sequel) daughter to rapist thugs. Kersey took to the streets to avenge them and others who fell victim to street crime. Does he beat them up and drop them at the nearest police station? As expertly performed by Charles Bronson in what would be his defining role and persona…HELL NO! He shoots them. Sometimes more than once. As the sequels went on, always more than once.

The first “Death Wish” was released in 1974 to some controversy, mixed reviews, and big box office. The film’s detractors claimed it was just a Right-Wing, violent, fantasy that sent the wrong message. I have never been a subscriber to the “artists must be socially responsible” way of thinking. Make the films, plays, art, or music you want to make if it speaks to YOU. We have socially conscious films and filmmakers, and this is a good thing. Producers wouldn’t give films like “Death Wish” to the Spielbergs or the Sidney Pollacks of the business, nor would they be comfortable as filmmakers directing these types of gritty and violent pictures.

Michael Winner was a British filmmaker who had a raw style and saw America for what it was at the time. He was never afraid to show this country’s violent streak or hypocrisy on crime and criminals in any of the films he directed in the United States.

I believe “Death Wish” did have a message about the law’s hypocritical outlook on violence in the United States and whether it was right or wrong, it was indeed a statement that was frank and brutal. Everyone has their breaking point that can push even the meekest of us to do things we never dreamed we would be capable of. America is a country born of blood and murder, a violent land from the very beginning. Truly, there is the sleeping lion of violence in us all.

Bronson’s Paul Kersey had a wife and daughter who were violently attacked and raped. The wife dies while the daughter deals with mental illness. As time goes on, the police are not helping nor do enough to find the culprits. After a visit to Arizona, Kersey is given a gun as a present. Soon, the gun does what the authorities can’t seem to do. Wipe out the scum who did this and, along the way, take down any thugs who are unlucky enough to get in Kersey’s path.

As the film progresses, he gets more and more used to shootingand begins to prowl the dark streets of NYC, moving as a silent symbol of vengeance set to the Lalo Schifrin-esque score from Herbie Hancock.

To add to the controversy, in the film’s finale, the authorities discover the vigilante is Paul Kersey, but instead of arresting him, they look at crime statistics and see that they are down.

Vincent Gardenia is the cop on the case and his superiors order him to give Kersey a message; “ask him” to leave the city. No arrest, no trial, just a ticket out of there. Imagine the outrage of today’s skittish audiences when this vigilante is allowed to move on. 

The move is political for the characters and satisfying to the audience. In the brilliant final moment, Kersey is in the Chicago airport. Some thugs knock a lady’s purse to the floor and accost her. Bronson bends down and begins to help her pick up her belongings. The thugs yell at him, taunting him. Bronson smiles back, makes his thumb and forefinger into a gun, and points it at them. Paul Kersey’s work is not done. Again, a final statement represented in one shot that closes a balls-out, hardcore, classic that today’s Hollywood would refuse to let fly.

In 1982, Winner and Bronson returned for “Death Wish 2”. Make no mistake, this one is not a message film. Produced by Golden/Globus, this sequel exists to rack up Paul Kersey’s bad guy body count and to give genre fans a bloody good time. To be fair, this film IS brutal and graphic and unapologetically vicious.

Kersey has moved with his daughter to L.A. She is still hospitalized and always will be. At one point, his daughter is kidnapped, raped, and as she tries to escape, jumps out of a window, and is impaled on a spiked fence. It is a gruesome and uncomfortable sequence designed to make the audience root for Bronson’s character even more.

Winner made this one relentlessly grim. After his daughter’s death, Kersey begins again as he searches the sleazy neon lit Los Angeles nights for her killers. There is no message here. Just extreme violence that, I confess, elicits a sense of “right on!” as Bronson lays waste to the (unfortunately stereotypical) baddies.

Critics branded “Death Wish 2” garbage and overly violent and stomach churning. Well, it is at times, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. “Death Wish” had something to say, misguided as it probably was. “Death Wish 2” was there for fans of the first film to watch Bronson kill and say a few cool things as he did it.

This one is sleazy to the extreme, but it works! Winner’s film (his first for Cannon) is a damn good Action/Thriller that benefits from a normally stoic and super cool performance from Charles Bronson, some crisp direction, lots of gunplay, and a pulsating and effective score from guitarist Jimmy Page that is as down and dirty as the film itself.

The two “Death Wish” films are polar opposites in design and impact, but both are of their time. In the original film, Bronson strolled the cold New York winter streets at a time where crime overtook the city. Winner used the bombed out and decayed look of early 70s NYC to the film’s advantage. The director (while entertaining his audience) was holding a mirror to our society during that time and almost daring us to see ourselves in a real light. While I believe that many of us have peaceful souls, given the situation, there is a little Paul Kersey in each of us.

In the sequel, Kersey is in a slicker city and Winner uses L.A.’s nightlife to great advantage, as Bronson becomes a dark avenging Angel. The goal for this one was to entertain and throw the “Death Wish” brand into the ever-growing Cannon genre film library. In every moment, “Death Wish 2” exists as pure entertainment for action fans and stands as a reminder of the type of genre film that won’t even be discussed by a major studio today.

Hollywood tried a half-assed remake of “Death Wish” with Jodie Foster. Directed by Neil Jordan, “The Brave One” was silly, boring, and too P.C. while trying not to be any of those things. It was awful and did not even credit Brian Garfield’s source novel (of which the original “Death Wish” was an adaptation). There is argument to be made that the screenwriters were trying their own thing but the similarities to both the novel and Winner’s film are obvious.

Another try came from filmmaker James Wan, 2007’s “Death Sentence”, which was based on Harfiled’s sequel novel to “Death Wish”. It starred Kevin Bacon as a husband and father who loses his family to thugs and goes after them. It was a violent film, and it was decent, but it didn’t have the rawness and urgency of Winner’s first two “Death Wish” films. Bacon only went after the thugs who killed his family and, at the end, waxed poetic about revenge and what is right and wrong while he sat next to the wounded gang leader he was trying to kill. That moment played badly and removed the potency of the violence that had come before.

And the less said about Eli Roth’s tonally confused and ridiculously terrible 2018 “Death Wish” remake the better.

A memo to Hollywood and the skittish, easily offended, audiences of today:

It is okay to have violence for violence’s sake in the realm of a straight up Action-Revenge Thriller. Charles Bronson would never sit next to his prey and explain the profundity of street violence and retribution. He shoots. A filmmaker and FX professionals design scenes of gunplay to impact viewers; sometimes realistic and sometimes for pure entertainment. If it plays to you, roll with it. It doesn’t make you a monster. Action films are crafted to give their audiences a good time. 

Michael Winner’s “Death Wish” is a genre classic of its era. “Death Wish 2” is an entertaining, brutal, and violent film the audience watches for the thrill of seeing Bronson kill bad guys… and that is perfectly okay folks!

About The Author: A long-time film connoisseur and son to a father who ran a movie theater, Anthony Francis rightfully grew up to be a journalist, filmmaker, writer, and film reviewer. His latest reviews/interviews/articles can be found at screencomment.com

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