a critiQal film review Death Wish (1974)

  • DVD
  • Blu-Ray

Plot: Once a mild-mannered liberal, New York City architect Paul Kersey (Bronson) snaps when intruders break into his home, murdering his wife (Lange) and violently raping his daughter. A business trip to Tucson, Ariz., lands him a gift from a client, a revolver he uses to patrol the streets when he returns home. Frustrated that the police cannot find the intruders, he become a vigilante, gunning down any criminal that crosses his path.

773 words (Est. Reading Time 3m 51s)

For this weekend’s RetroReview, I decided to see what Hulu® had to offer…and stumbled across Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson. I actually hadn’t ever seen this film (yes, I know my classic film education is serious lacking), and this seemed a good time to check it out – especially after recently hearing about the remake in works (starring Bruce Willis). Would Charles Bronson delight in this vengeance-driven pic, or had time destroyed this classic?

It seems that back in the day, action stars were picked more for their manliness rather than their ability to express any true range of emotion. Charles Bronson is a prime example of this. While he seems tough and able when shooting a gun, he is way out of his depth in any emotional sequence. He’s too reserved, and viewers won’t even be able to glimpse the cliched single tear when he’s told of his wife’s death and daughter’s rape.

Bronson is at his best in the moments when he’s facing down attackers and slipping by the cops. In the former, he keeps his cool under pressure, although viewers can glimpse a bit of that rage hiding behind his eyes. In the latter, a sequence that shows him outsmarting the cops gives viewers a glimpse of a smiling Bronson – something he rarely does anywhere else in the film.

The rest of the cast is rather ho-hum, doing decently in their roles but not really doing anything to make themselves stand out. As is typical of these older films, however, viewers get to see some other actors making an appearance in very different roles than they are now known for. Look for a young Jeff Goldblum (The Fly (1986), Jurassic Park (1993)) in the early sequences as Freak #1, and Christopher Guest (This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride (1987)) as Patrolman Reilly near the end of the film.

Death Wish has an interesting setup: a man takes the law into his own hands when his wife and daughter are attacked by thugs. Surprisingly, however, he doesn’t go after the thugs who perpetrated the attack (like Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Death Sentence (2007) and a slew of others). Instead, he just goes after any and all crime he sees. Rather than building up to a climactic showdown between him and the thugs, the film instead just sics the cops on his tail. The tension builds as they get closer, and some nuances keep the viewer wondering if the cops are just going to gun him down or let him go.

But there’s something missing in a revenge pic if the hero doesn’t get to take out his revenge on the thugs personally responsible for his situation. It’s the old “eye for an eye” thing, and viewers look forward to those climactic showdowns that allow the hero some closure. But, that’s not the only way Death Wish is different from the typical revenge flick.

The film spends a good portion of it’s time on the struggle it’s hero faces to get on with his life. Immersing himself in work helps, but it’s just a band-aid. Once he takes the law into his own hands, his demeanor totally changes, as he seems to feel he’s enacting a long-overdue justice, and providing peace of mind for his fellow citizens of the Big Apple.

And that’s where Death Wish takes it’s moral stance – one which the characters repeat (to varying degrees) throughout the film. When the lawless overrun the law-abiding, it’s time for the ordinary citizen to take a stand. Even the cops, while not happy with our hero’s actions, point to the dropping crime rate as a way of condoning him – if not publicly, then at least privately.

Sure, many could look at Death Wish and see a pro-gun propaganda movie, and they wouldn’t be wrong. And yes, the downsides of this type of behavior (random citizens killing innocents by mistake, shooting cops, etc.) is brushed aside with barely even a mention, that’s typical of most any revenge-driven action flick.

With Charles Bronson in the lead role, viewers can expect violence and death, and they get that in Death Wish. While his emotional span is rather lacking, he does a decent job of showing a man giving into his desires for blind justice. Death Wish is a decent revenge pic, even if the hero never faces down the attackers that destroyed his life.

Maybe he did eventually face those attackers in future sequels (the film spawned several). I don’t know, as I haven’t seen the sequels yet. But, be sure to stick around, as I’m sure to be posting those reviews at some point in the future.

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