Probably the wackiest vigilante movie you’re likely to see, Death Wish 3 sees Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) arrive in a hell on earth, East New York tenement, only to find an old friend clubbed to death. His dying words: “Take care of my things while I’m gone, will you?” How poignant. Wrongly accused of murder, Kersey is hauled away by incompetent cops, but whilst incarcerated beats up a few antisocial thugs and earns the enmity of local gang leader Manny Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy). “I’m gonna kill a little old lady just for you”, boasts Fraker, upon his release. “Catch it on the six o’clock news.”
Whereupon the seemingly schizophrenic Inspector Richard Shriker (Ed Lauter), who earlier slapped Kersey around growling “I’m the law - that’s why I get to violate your constitutional rights”, has a change of heart. He unleashes Kersey to wage a one-man war against the criminal populace. Armed with a Kevlar-lined jacket, a .457 Wildey Magnum (“Bigger than Dirty Harry’s”), a host of DIY mantraps and a small arsenal of heavy weapons, Kersey galvanises the elderly citizens into taking back their neighbourhood from no-good street punks.
After the rampant misogyny in Death Wish 2 (1982) (nevertheless the most popular entry in the long-running series), Michael Winner opts for a cartoon approach to action filmmaking, aping the likes of Rambo: First Blood (1985) and Commando (1985). Some people claim this film is actually a satire of vigilante action movies, which perhaps accounts for the silly humour (e.g. Bronson’s Sylvester Stallone impression; an elderly couple enjoying a news broadcast of the riot happening outside their window) and the videogame-style shootouts where Bronson mows bad guys down by the hundreds. But Death Wish 3 carries the same uncomfortably earnest right-wing values as previous entries. Violent crime and vigilantism were on the rise in mid-eighties New York and, like a tabloid journo baying for blood, Winner lays into police incompetence, strict gun laws that prevent victims of crime from wielding firearms, incompetent doctors, and of course, lousy, no-good, hairspray and eyeliner loving street punks. The kind of guys for whom “What the f*** are you looking at?” is a conversational opener and gang rape is a spectator sport.
Even liberal lawyer Kathryn Davies (Deborah Raffin) admits she hates defending “these creeps” and cheers along with the neighbourhood when Bronson blows Giggler (Kirk Taylor) away. Her character serves little point except to hop into bed with Bronson, which proves the kiss of death as she is swiftly blown up. Ladies, unless your name is Jill Ireland, don’t bang Bronson or you’re doomed.
The film’s subtitle might as well be “Revenge of the Elderly”, seeing almost all the good guys are over sixty, including the impressively brawny and agile Bronson, and gung-ho Bennett Cross (Martin Balsam) who reminisces warmly about World War Two. Winner’s chaotic angles, wild zooms and frenzied editing make him a headache-inducing storyteller, but the bat-shit crazy final act remains absurdly entertaining. Bronson wields machineguns and rocket launchers, gang-bangers set fire to old folks then shoot them, and literally everybody (shopkeepers, housewives, the infirmed) grabs a gun and turns vigilante! Winner takes the original premise to its warped logical conclusion: all-out urban warfare. Cheesy disco score by Jimmy Page - possibly traumatized by the breakup of Led Zeppelin. Bronson was back in Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987).
I know it sounds ridiculous, but I think this is the film Bronson and Winner fell out over because Bronson thought it was too violent! I was more offended by O'Herlihy's hair, a weird negative mohawk, but you have to admire a man of the star's advancing years powering down those mean streets as if he were still twenty. And there were still two instalments to come!