Monday, February 13, 2017

DEATH WISH (1974) - ***

Rated R
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: July 24, 1974
Box office: $22,000,000 (domestic)

In our previous review of Starship Troopers, there was discussion of the satire contained within; satire of fascism and militarism, of xenophobia and jingoism. The plot and characters of that film could have very well been right-wing. Now comes Death Wish, a film that preceded Starship Troopers by a good 23 years, but carries a similar message. It makes no bones of the fact that the streets are safer when vigilantes patrol the night; that the underprivileged should all be locked up in concentration camps to protect "decent people"; that liberals believe gun owners like to shoot their guns because they're an extension of their penises. In Death Wish, a man who is generally a pacifist comes around to the other side of the fence, maybe because of revenge, or maybe because he believes he understands the power he wields when he is armed. Considering the current political and social climate in 2017, the message of Death Wish is bound to divide viewers. However you feel about the issue of guns and vigilantism, the film itself is a watchable piece of entertainment.

The plot begins with Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) enjoying a vacation in Hawaii, and for some reason are very reluctant to return home. Cue the shot of a blood red sky containing a blazing hot sun and a dead tree. Score composer Herbie Hancock emphasizes the shot with screeching synthesizers. The idea of New York City somehow being some sort of threatening level of hell certainly adds tone to a film. Director Michael Winner really wanted to put focus on the city, and the screenplay takes it to the next level with Paul's co-worker quoting the murder rate in the last week alone. So the setting and tone have been established within the first several minutes of the film. Kersey's wife and daughter go out shopping for groceries and come home to a trio of punks who force their way into their home and attack them in a scene that can be described as uncomfortable and disturbing. Mrs. Kersey dies and the daughter, Carol (Kathleen Tolan), never recovers from the shock of her violent assault, and slips into a near-vegetative state. One of the downsides of the film is its view and treatment of women as helpless victims. Once these two characters are out of the way and serve their purpose, they are forgotten about, cast aside in favor of the action to come.

Paul is quite shaken by the entire scenario, understandably, and deems the police not much of a help.
After being accosted himself while taking an evening stroll, he makes a half-hearted decision to defend himself, as we see him exchange a $20 bill for rolls of quarters, which he loads into a sock. The scene then shifts to Arizona, where Paul makes a business trip and meets Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), who takes Paul to a shooting range. Much to his surprise, Paul is quite adept with a handgun, as we learn he served in Korea, but was a conscientious objector rather than infantry. Paul and Ames hit it off, and at the conclusion of the trip, Ames packs a gift for Paul: a .32 revolver. Seemingly inspired by a mock gunfight at Old Tucson, a wild-west style theme park/movie studio, Paul takes to the streets to exact justice. As the body count rises, the police begin searching for clues to his identity, while the issue of whether vigilantism is the right way to handle crime takes debate.

The pacing of Death Wish is fairly brisk and makes its point rather quickly, but the resolution felt a little weak. Rather than attempt to arrest the man responsible for taking the law into his own hands, they opt to chase the man out of town. There were political reasons behind this contained within the plot, but it really leads to an anticlimactic finish.

Director Michael Winner is no stranger to gritty, urban violence. The man was behind such hard 1970s action as The Mechanic, Scorpio and The Stone Killer. Two of those films also starred Charles Bronson, so there is a rapport here between director and star that makes sense. Winner has taken New York City and apparently turned it into the worst place on Earth to live. Seedy characters occupy every dark corner and alley in the city and they sometimes attack in packs of two or three. Even for 1970s New York, this is a highly unlikely view of such a place. It sure does provide for plenty of action, however, so it does have an upside to it. The cinematography was the work of Arthur J. Ornitz, and he provides solid composition as the film changes scenes from bright, sunny, sandy Hawaii in the opening to the dark, grimy, gritty New York. In between, there is dusty and hot Tucson, which is a little jarring after accepting the hellish city.

Charles Bronson's portrayal of Paul Kersey is interesting. The character, described by another character as a "bleeding-heart liberal", knows quite a bit about guns and how to use them, thanks to his father, and we are as surprised as Ames when he hits the bullseye at the shooting range. The character wanted to keep that little secret hidden from view, and Bronson pulled it off. After shooting his first mugger, Paul goes home and vomits, which is a logical reaction for a man who has never taken a life before. However, the character quickly gets a taste for it, even to the point of acting quite confident in his endeavors. The motivation is understandable and Bronson gives an authentic performance before he slips into Robo-Bronson mode that we're used to seeing. Another key performance comes from Vincent Gardenia as NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa. Not just a stock movie police detective, Ochoa is intelligent and quite adept at understanding how to put the pieces together in his investigation. Gardenia provides the character with wit and always seems to be winking at the camera, as if he was telling the audience that he knows what he's doing.

There are certainly some holes to be poked in Death Wish, especially with the way New York is given the villain treatment. The female characters are weak and only serve as plot triggers and the climax leaves a lot to be desired, especially after the way the plot had been building to a pot-boiler. However, Bronson gives a strong performance, there is plenty of action and a logical path through three-quarters of the plot. The message may be controversial, but Death Wish also serves as a mostly entertaining film.

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