Thursday, April 17, 2014
Death Wish 3 (1985)
Written by "Michael Edmonds", a pseudonym for Don Jakoby
Directed by Michael Winner
Charles Bronson: Paul Kersey
Deborah Raffin: Kathryn Davis
Ed "That Guy" Lauter: Richard Shriker
Gavan O'Herlihy: Fraker
Kirk Taylor: The Giggler
with Martin Balsam, Alex Winter, and Marina Sirtis as people who probably left this one off their resumes.
I felt a little apprehensive about reviewing the third movie in a trilogy when I haven't reviewed--or even seen--the first two films. But you don't have to know anything about the previous Death Wish movies in order to understand this one. You don't have to know anything about any movies in order to enjoy this one. It's the guiltiest of pleasures for me (socially, I tend to be slightly to the left of Karl Marx), and any apprehension I have about taking a swing at this one stems from Ken Begg, the force of nature behind Jabootu and the Onion AV Club already tilling this ground long before I did.
But what the heck. You might not have read those other reviews yet. Here's mine.
First, a little bit of background: Violent crime rates have been falling in America for three or four decades. But for a while there in the late 60s through the 70s, there was a perception that innocent people took their lives in their hands walking down the street in big cities. (I should note, by the way, that I was born in 1975 and don't remember any of the Seventies first-hand; I'm going off of memories of Readers' Digest and Mad Magazine articles on American society and its perceived decline.) Thinking about it now, I'm sure events like the 1968 police riot in Chicago at the Democratic national convention were stamped indelibly in the minds of anyone alive and paying attention to the news at that time, and white flight out of urban areas led to smaller tax bases for the cities, which didn't shrink in size even after their populations decreased. High crime rates and lack of investment in urban areas fed off each other, both trends mutually reinforcing their causes/effects while suburban shopping malls provided economic booms outside of downtown retail districts.
All in all, a giant pile of suck. And with tens of millions of Americans thinking about urban crime and danger, the nation's dream factories would respond to those concerns. The first Death Wish movie, at least by reputation, is a somewhat-not-cartoonish look at what happens when an archetypal Good Family Man is pushed too far (his wife and daughter are attacked; his wife dies from her injuries). Paul Kersey, an architect and Korean War conscientious objector, snaps and starts killing street criminals in a campaign of vengeance. He's eventually discovered by police but they like the drop in crime rates while the muggers are all terrified of being killed by their victims; he gets exiled from New York City but not from his state of mind. The film was a colossal hit (though disowned by Andrew Garfield, who wrote the book that the film was based on); four sequels over the next two decades were the official followups, but there was also a boom in ripoffs and derivative works ranging from movies like The Exterminator and its sequel to Ms .45 to the fascinatingly named The Executioner, Part II (which was not actually a sequel to anything).
Money talks in Hollywood, and it talks even louder on the periphery, where independent studios and fly-by-night hacks can take a money-making premise and churn out a dozen copies in a year or two. And unlike trying to rip off Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars, you can make an urban vigilante movie in your nearest rundown neighborhood. If you wind up needing to pacify the local criminal gangs, you can offer them parts in your movie (as Walter Hill did in The Warriors, when his set dressers graffiti-tagged a wall claimed by a real-life street gang). Add in some gunshot squibs and a hero (almost invariably a white man disgusted by the "urban" crime around him) and you've got something that will play in Peoria as well as the Times Square grindhouses.
Cannon studios (who never met a trend they couldn't exploit--they released three breakdancing movies in 1984 before the fad fell apart, one of them a sequel to another!) couldn't afford the slick polished production that a major studio could provide, so they made the natural choice to make this movie as cheaply as they could, with nastiness and white-guy paranoia standing in for production values and a competent script. Filmed on the cheap in England instead of in New York City, the film is as succinct an encapsulation of the frightened right-wing id as Red Dawn. This time, of course, the invaders have already taken over the city and the resistance is one lone Good Middle Class Middle-Aged White Man Pushed Too Far.
The film starts with Paul Kersey on a bus going to visit a friend in New York City, and the establishing shots of the bus arriving are the only authentic looks at the Big Apple you're going to be getting. Enjoy them while they last. Kersey is in town to visit an old Army buddy who serves the plot-motivating function in a vigilante movie by getting beaten to death by criminals, expiring seconds after Kersey shows up at his door. The police promptly arrest Kersey for the crime (showing their function in these kinds of movies--to earnestly and steadfastly do the wrong thing over and over, showing that the system is incompetent at best and actively hostile to the hero at worst. After all, it's hard to root for a vigilante if the law enforcement system works). The cops try to beat a confession out of him and tell him he can't have a glass of water, but Kersey's way tougher than they are and silently takes their abuse and also refuses to admit he is thirsty. He also gave the fake name "Kimball" when arrested, but a tightly-wound precinct captain recognizes him as the inner-city vigilante that gained fame and infamy several years before. You've seen the late Ed Lauter in a dozen things, even if you don't know him by name. He almost always played a cop (or, stretching his range, occasionally a prison guard or Secret Service agent).
Cooling off in the jail cell, Kersey is attacked by a fat skinhead seconds after the door is shut and locked; he rams the guy's head through the cell bars and we get treated to lots of Dutch-tilt shots of laughing criminals. The only other person stone-facing in the cell is Fraker, the movie's main villain, played by the guy who was in nine episodes of Happy Days and then got written out of the show completely when the producers decided Richie Cunningham didn't need an older brother. He is also cursed with an incredibly stupid haircut, some kind of reverse-Mohawk with a broad stripe shaved out of the middle of his scalp, front to back. There's also a stripe of lipstick down the middle of the shaved patch. It looks even stupider than you're thinking reading this. Raven's hair from Streets of Fire would kill and eat this guy's hair just to do it. Also, the actor's performance as Fraker will lead you to wonder, as I once did, if it is possible to be a poor man's Jake Busey.
The bad guy's lawyer quickly and efficiently springs him from the cell (because in vigilante movies, lawyers for the bad guys are expensive and effective); he apparently recognized Kersey on sight as well because he promises to kill a little old lady in the geriatric vigilante's honor. The precinct captain makes Kersey an offer he won't be allowed to refuse: Figure out who the criminal movers and shakers are in his dead friend's neighborhood, coordinate with the police to clean the place up, and get the hell out of New York City. The alternative is to be charged with all the old vigilante killings from the 70s or get thrown back into the jail until one of the thugs or lunatics there kills him.
Kersey returns to the neighborhood after a meet-cute with the public defender who's young enough to be his niece, at least, and who (SPOILER!) will fall in love with him and then get offed by Fraker in order to provide motivation for the third-act massacre. Before he even gets to the apartment building, Kersey smacks a punk with a lead pipe for threatening to eat and kill a woman while trying to slap through the windshield of her (moving) car. As you do. Bennett, played by Oscar-winning actor Martin Balsam in a role that will make you hope he was paid absurdly well, gives Kersey the keys to his friend's apartment and drops a pile of exposition off on the living room carpet: The neighborhood used to be a good place for decent people to live, but then it changed ("changed" is understood to mean "criminal thugs who aren't white moved in and ruined everything for us" in his monologue). The people who could afford to move out fled and the remaining (late middle aged white) people are at the mercy of gangs, creeps and maniacs while the police fail to protect them. Bennett also shows who the main criminals in the area are, giving us our first real look at the Giggler. More about him later. The apartment rent is paid up till "the end of the month", however long that is. Kersey moves into the murder flat and starts planning his geriaction-movie payback.
The next day, Bennett introduces Kersey to the tenants in the apartment building, including token non-evil Hispanic couple Maria and Rodriguez and an elderly Jewish couple in another flat. Kersey places a phone order for a shit ton of firearms and waits for them to arrive; in the meantime he rents a post office box and buys the most impressive sedan the production could afford to rent. This car is almost immediately broken into, and Kersey excuses himself from dinner long enough to murder the two creeps trying to hotwire it. He leaves their bodies by the car in order to send Fraker an official declaration of war.
The war continues as a black dude in a half-shirt and baggy pants hassles the Rodriguez couple while carrying groceries back to their apartment. Kersey knocks the guy down with one punch and sets about booby-trapping first his pad, and then other ones in the building. Over the same time period, Fraker and his gang decide to step up their criminal efforts and the public defender attached to Kersey's case stalks him and extorts a promise to have dinner out of him before she gets mugged and set on fire in his post-apocalyptic neighborhood. Kathryn Davis is the picture of fresh-scrubbed mid-80s career woman beauty, and looks to be at least three decades younger than Charles Bronson in this flick. It's not quite on the level of Mae West macking on jailbait Timothy Dalton in Sextette but it doesn't look wholesome.
Next up: Police confiscate the gun from the elderly Jewish couple and seconds later the black dude in the belly shirt steals their television and says he'll be back whenever he wants. (The next time someone tries coming in that window he loses teeth to one of Kersey's booby traps.) Shortly after that sequence, Kersey's mail-order .475 Wildey Magnum pistol arrives; there's a brief moment where he extols the virtues of the gun and its cut-down rifle ammunition. Incidentally, the manufacturer has said that they get a boost in orders every time this movie is shown on cable and credits Death Wish 3 with saving the firm from bankruptcy in the mid-Eighties. Ordinarily this is the kind of trivia that hurts my feelings and makes me regret that a movie was made, but this film is go over-the-top and stupid that I can't bring myself to hate on it for this reason.
I can hate on it for providing nudity in a rape scene, with Marina Sirtis' Maria winding up topless, then dying in the hospital from a blood clot. I don't believe her character gets a single line of dialogue (although that might be more a function of Sirtis' inability to do a Mexican accent than simple misogyny).
In the wake of Maria's death, Kersey goes to get ice cream while carrying a camera over his shoulder; he's trolling for snatch-and-grab thieves just as surely as he set the car out as bait for the two previous creeps. The Giggler grabs his camera and bolts; Kersey plants his feet, draws his gun and drills him in the back with a hand-loaded .475 round without so much as a single syllable of warning. The movie apparently realizes that it's asking the viewer to cheer for premeditated murder so it has the neighborhood residents do exactly that. It's a moment that never fails to make my jaw drop with its absurdity and its complicity in the spree of premeditated murders from the hero.
A lull in the action follows, wherein Kersey and Kathryn Davis have a dinner date, make some small talk and get to know each other. Davis, a public defender, gets a Travis Bickle speech where she wishes someone would sweep the scum of the Earth off the streets and make life safe again for decent people in the city. I imagine she does not always put up an Atticus Finch-quality defense, but hopefully nobody got put in prison for decades or executed because of it.
Back at his (well, Charlie's) place, Kersey shows that he can get baited just as easily as any of Fraker's gang; the leader of the pack stands out in view of Kersey's window for a couple of minutes and walks down an alley. Kersey follows, of course, and is ambushed. Fraker and his gang members attended the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy, however, and Kersey lives to fight another day. Actually, to be fair, this is a pretty cool sequence--Paul loses his gun early on, ambushes two creeps and knocks them out with his bare hands, flees and sets up an ambush for one of his attackers and gets his ten-pound pistol back before returning to his pad. Instead of being the invincible gunfighter from the first two acts, Kersey has to think on his feet and hide in order to get away. It's not quite the sequence in Rumble in the Bronx where Jackie Chan spends several minutes running away from another goofy-ass New York City gang but I'll take what I can get. In retaliation for losing another gang member (Kersey chucks him off a roof), Fraker kills the elderly wife of a shopkeeper who kicked gang members out of his store. Obviously it's getting close to Get Your Murder On time and Bronson is close to going full-tilt Roaring Rampage of Revenge. But not quite yet.
A romantic interlude with Kathryn Davis follows, because of course it does. After making sweet love to Kersey, the couple goes to dinner. Kersey leaves the car to check his PO box and Fraker punches Davis in the head, then puts the car in neutral. It rolls lazily down a hill, knocks into another car and bursts into a gargantuan fireball that incinerated both cars (and whoever was in the second car). At the B Fest where I saw this movie for the first time, I actually started a ten-second countdown in this scene and was only off by a second or two before Fraker cold-cocked Ms. Davis and sent her to her doom. And now Kersey's been wronged like a Vincent Price antihero. Now more than ever, it's murdering time.
Bennett's taxi-meter repair shop is firebombed and he gets a vintage machine gun from Kersey's apartment; he's the stalwart sidekick, though, not the hero, so he gets beat down like a chump when his full-auto phallic substitute fails to shoot. I do love the low-key nonplussed look on Martin Balsam's face when the gang members that ran away from him realize that he jammed the gun and run back at him. Kersey is let out of protective custody to visit Bennett in the hospital (the sidekick won't give a statement to police until he talks to Kersey) and the vigilante beats feet out the window and down the fire escape in order to get back to his base of operations.
What happens next? Well, I'm going to quote Sean Frost, who attended ten B Fests with me before deciding that Chicago in the deepest pit of winter was a stupid vacation destination. "Twenty minutes before the end credits, the movie gives up and Chuck Bronson shoots everyone with a bad haircut". It's pretty amazing. Every penny that the Cannon group could scrape together gets spent (Fraker even makes a phone call that serves as a takeout order for more cannon fodder before the big rumble). Bikers show up. The police are outnumbered and outgunned. Kersey unpacks something that looks to my untutored eyes to mortar rounds, but the film says they're antitank rounds. Rodriguez just has a zip gun, and Kersey doesn't even loan him a revolver or something for the big showdown. What a jerk.
Things kick off when marauding creeps menace three people carrying groceries home, and Kersey machine-guns a group of them. There's lots of stuntmen falling down in this particular scene and hundreds of blank rounds fired, but I didn't notice any bullet squibs. All the decent hardworking (white, middle-aged and older) people pull hidden guns out of dresser drawers and get ready to take their neighborhoods back from the (criminal, younger, integrated) criminal gangs. And we get another tasteless nudity-through-rape-threat scene, because the filmmakers don't want me to be unconflictedly happy with the absurdly hyperviolent gunfight. Lots of houses and cars get firebombed (and one stuntman earns his extra hazard pay by doing a full-body burn gag); Kersey starts taking creeps out one by one and I appreciate the occasional missed shot. Even in the third-act quarter hour of total carnage, Kersey isn't completely perfect at what he's doing. Around the same time as this movie was released, Steven Seagal was starting his own career as an action hero and I remember his characters as always having to be utterly perfect at everything in every film; I'd much rather watch someone who misses a shot once in a while or has a plan go sour. And Bronson has a craggy, weathered charisma that eclipses Seagal's screen presence by several orders of magnitude to boot.
More stuff blows up! Lots of people fall off of roofs and ledges! More cars are on fire! People in the neighborhood shoot a bunch of bikers, loot their corpses for firearms, and join the fracas! One dude takes a knife to the skull from a booby trap! Rodriguez actually shoots someone with his zip gun! Kersey almost gets sniped when he stops to reload his Wildey .475 Magnum available from the Wildey Firearms Manufacturing Company but Shriker saves him! The pair of antiheroes then run a gauntlet of psychos and criminals to get back to Kersey's base, where Fraker is waiting for him with a bulletproof vest! Shriker gets shot in the shoulder by the lead bad guy! But the head psycho brought a gun to a rocket-launcher fight and exits the film as a literal cloud of red mist being blown out of the apartment window. The movie earns my love forever by having his girlfriend scream when she sees the explosion, as if she recognized that particular cloud of atomized blood and meat flying out into the air. The surviving gang members sullenly walk off after that literal display of overkill and Kersey wanders off into the sunset to go make another sequel whenever Bronson especially needed to make a house payment.
Look, this was never going to be anything but a cheap cash-in from Golan and Globus; that was one of their main business models in the 80s. They were behind the Chuck Norris Missing in Action films, the made-in-Taiwan knockoffs of the Rambo movies. Somehow they got the rights to make a Superman movie and managed to destroy the franchise for over a decade with their shoddy effort on that one. If they couldn't buy the franchise rights to a film they just made their own blurry third-generation Xerox (tm) brand photocopy of it. But on this one, they really pulled out all the stops for the final showdown. It's stupid, racist, inflammatory, misogynistic and glorifies murder to an extent that makes me wonder what's wrong with me for liking it. But it is, at the end of the day, absurdly entertaining. And for all the cracks about Bronson's age that I've made, he looked better at 63 in this one than I do now, about a quarter-century younger than him. It ain't art, but it's a lot of fun.