Death Wish is one of the finest revenge flicks ever made. And to think it really isn’t so much about revenge as it is about vigilantism – the real vigilantism, the kind done summarily and violently and where making the guilty pay supersedes determining the level of guilt or satisfying a personal vendetta. With a very human character in the lead, in a film that is careful not to glorify murder, justify killing or stretch the boundaries of realism, Death Wish is sincere, unexpected and highly entertaining.It starts in beautiful, paradisiacal Hawaii, with Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) basking on the glamorous beaches and taking photos to remember their vacation. The mood is light and gay, until the title flashes onscreen. Suddenly, a sinister foreshadowing is instilled upon the audience. After the couple arrives back in New York, a gang of three misfits (memorably led by a young Jeff Goldblum, credited only as “Freak 1”) note the address of Joanna’s grocery delivery and pay her a visit. In Paul’s apartment, the ruthless trio, in droog-like fashion, attack the defenseless woman and her daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan). Joanna dies and Carol is so traumatized by the rape that she drifts into a vegetative state.
Paul is greatly disturbed, but holds himself together long enough to attend the funeral and see his daughter committed to an asylum. As the random act of violence slowly eats away at him, he realizes that lashing out against crime might be the method for coping. His job as a housing development engineer takes him to Tucson, Arizona where he reacquaints himself with firearms and a new opinion on self-defense. He returns to New York and its incredibly high rate of crime, and slowly but assuredly starts frequenting dangerous locations alone, riding on the subway at night, and flashing money at seedy establishments. Like clockwork, the sordid underbelly of the city descends upon him so that he may reap bloody, vigilante justice indiscriminately on every mugger he can lure into his trap.
It’s a slow transformation for Paul. He even gets sick the first time he’s forced to defend himself. He’s not instantly a badass or macho killing machine, and initially detests weapons. Although his background involves being a Navy SEAL, he’s always considered himself a conscientious objector and a bleeding-heart liberal. Very few movies dare to spend so much time developing and humanizing a character at the heart of a grisly revenge movie. But there’s a melancholy and sad tone overshadowing the vigilantism, and Death Wish is never gung-ho about violence. In clever irony, the police department spends plenty of time, officers and resources to track down the vigilante killer, all while trying to prevent citizens from being inspired to fight back. With the help of the media, Paul’s murder spree actually does some good, despite the corrupt nature of taking the law into one’s own hands. In the background are the controversial and powerful ideas of his specific brand of revenge – will he ever find the original hoodlums that attacked his family? And if so, will he know it?
It’s not an action-packed thrill-a-minute film, but a careful examination of the street justice mindset and a shining break from mindless over-the-top action comedies. Weighing the positive and negative effects of vigilante justice without settling for cheap thrills or exploitive bloodshed, Death Wish would meet critical and commercial success that led to the making of four sequels for a renowned franchise.- Mike Massie