We’re back to Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), and we’ve entered a new era. I’d like to call this era the “Waste Creeps” era.
Something I forgot to mention in last week’s article in The Series Project. It turns out that Death Wish II was produced by none other than Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, better known to connoisseurs of B-movies as the masterminds behind The Cannon Group, that stalwart and shlock-tastic studio behind The Apple, Delta Force and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Cannon, as we shall discover in this week’s article capping off the final three films in the Death Wish series, was responsible for not only Death Wish II, but also parts 3 and 4. This may account for just how bugnuts insane these movies are about to get.
Seriously, if you’re not prepared for the wonky awesomeness of Death Wish 3, you may want to get off the ride right now, drink some chamomile tea, and pop in something more cogent and sane. Like Natural Born Killers. Death Wish was a sad and tragic 1970s revenge fantasy that played like an echo (or perhaps a legitimate younger brother) of the Dirty Harry movies. Death Wish II took the same premise, but robbed it of its tragedy, making for something a bit goofier, and decidedly less morally responsible (indeed, the moral irresponsibility of lionizing a vengeful vigilante murderer, paired with a general lugubrious direction, caused Roger Ebert to infamously give the film zero stars). But by the time we get to Death Wish 3, we’ve flown way off the rails.
This pattern adheres firmly to the famous Rule of Threequels, which I’ve touched on several times here in The Series Project. The first film is a hit. The second film ups the ante. By the third film, the filmmakers can either up the ante even further, making it kind of dumb, or take the series in a new direction, making it kind of dumb. Making a third film is, typically, a lose-lose situation. Sure, there are exceptions (I want the fans of the Lord of the Rings movies to put down those bricks), but most parts 3 are gooftastic riffs on the classic originals.
And just how gooftastic can they get? Let’s take a look at…
Death Wish 3 (dir. Michael Winner, 1985)
Wow, man. Just wow. I think I’ll say this right now: You don’t need to see any of the other Death Wish movies. Death Wish 3 is so over-the-top, so strange, so far-removed from reality, that it could potentially make your face melt right off your skull. Never before has a sequel deviated so wildly and irresponsibly from the tone of the original, and dipped into full-tilt action wackiness. The only way Death Wish 3 could have been crazier would be if there had been a robot in it, Charles Bronson was secretly a vampire, and you learned that it was a sequel to Days of Heaven. Let’s take a look at this bonkers odyssey.
So the Death Wish sequels kind of ping-pong back and forth between New York and L.A. The even numbered ones are in L.A., odd in New York. And Death Wish 3 is very odd in New York. Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson, as craggy as he wants to be) had been exonerated, if you’ll recall the end of Death Wish II, by the L.A. cops, and has returned to New York to visit a war buddy. Kersey’s buddy is going to be murdered right at the film’s outset, causing Kersey’s particular string of vengeance to be unleashed as soon as possible. Kersey is way, way no longer a tortured soul, behaving more like a badass killing machine. Now he’s kind of like Harpo Marx or Bugs Bunny in a way. Y’know how when someone abuses Harpo or Bugs at the beginning of their respective films, and the abuse gives Harpo and Bugs full license to torment the bully to their hearts’ content? That’s the way Paul Kersey is. If you kill his friend, he’s been given full moral immunity to murder you and a few hundred of your friends. If you’re a creep, he’ll waste you. Waste creeps.
The villain of Death Wish 3 is a pinched ginger named Fraker (Gavin O’Herlihy, looking disturbingly similar to Lindsay Lohan) who heads up a local gang of thugs. Fraker is a sniveling sadist who sports a bizarre inverted mohawk and feeds cocaine to his henchmen to work them into a murderous frenzy. Fraker rules his neighborhood, and, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, cannot be apprehended by the local police. The street gang in Death Wish 3 consists of what seems like over a thousand members, and is made up of a rainbow coalition of creeps; white kids, black guys, Latinos, punk ladies. Everyone is welcome in this gang. Indeed, the gang is so large and ubiquitous, it seems the entire population of their particular New York burg is either gang members, or the elderly Jews whom they mug.
The local cops (represented by Ed Lauter) find Paul in the apartment of his freshly-killed friend, and immediately suspect him. Ed Lauter, however, recognized Paul as the vigilante killer from the previous two movies and, get this, asks him to waste creeps! Yes, the cops, so frustrated with the crime in this city, sort of sic Paul Kersey on ‘em. Is he on the police payroll? Perhaps not. But Paul Kersey is now a hired gun, who blatantly begins gunning down creeps in the street. Waste creeps, Paul. Seriously. Early in the film, Paul buys an old beater as bait for the local car thieves. When he hears some creeps messing with his car, he politely excuses himself from the nice dinner he was enjoying with a neighbor, goes out into the street, wastes the creeps, and returns to dinner without much of an interruption. Bonkers awesome, that. Bonkers awesome.
If you want to get drunk quickly: Take a shot every time someone uses the word “creep.” Again if they use the word “waste.” Lotta creeps. Wasting creeps.
And it gets more bonkers awesome. Martin Balsam is in the film, and will end up providing Paul Kersey with a huge machine gun, left over from the war days. I understand that some veterans may have medals and even bayonets from their service. But gigantic machine guns? The strain on credibility is soothing. Paul Kersey also helps Balsam and other neighbors construct booby traps around their windows. One booby trap takes out a pair of teeth. As Paul kills more and more of Fraker’s boys, the war escalates.
For fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation, you’ll find that Marina Sirtis, who played Counselor Troi, appears in this film as a demure Latina with only two lines. Sirtis also appears topless in this film, but it’s, sadly, during a rape scene. Perhaps you can compartmentalize rape scenes, and appreciate the nudity as separate from the onscreen actions, but I can’t. So it’s not exactly a great sexual fulfillment to see her topless. She is, at the very least, very sporting.
I don’t want to describe too much else, as I think you should be able to see the awesomeness for yourself. Every plot conceit, every line, every act of violence is so over-the-top, and so tightly geared to the notion of blank-faced badass revenge-based creep-wasting, that it defies reality. The film’s eventual climax is an orgy of explosions not seen since Commando or a Rambo film. Paul Kersey, armed with a machine gun, is essentially walking through the streets blowing up cars, spraying creeps with bullets, and blowing up buildings, while hundreds of Fraker’s men do the same. It feels like hundreds die in the climax. I looked it up, and Death Wish 3 has a body count of 48, which is more than any given four Friday the 13th sequels. I don’t want to reveal, either, how the bad guy finally bites it, but it involves a rocket launcher. Remember when Paul Kersey only used a gun to shoot muggers? Now he blowing holes in walls, and reducing creeps to flakes of carbon.
Grab a gallon of gin, a friend, a gun, and prepare to waste some creeps. Death Wish 3 is a legitimate action classic for fans of HFS cinema.
We’ll stay by Cannon, and stay goofy for the next film, but it won’t be nearly as delirious in the next round.
Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (dir. J. Lee Thompson, 1987)
Death Wish 4 is the first in the series not to be directed by Michael Winner. J. Lee Thompson not only directed Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone, but was also behind the fourth and fifth Planet of the Apes movies.
So we’re back in L.A. I should perhaps point out that, no matter how violent and psychopathic Paul Kersey gets at the end of any of his movies, the local cops kind of pat him on the back and give him leave to go. So even though he pretty much blew up a measurable percentage of New York state at the end of Death Wish 3, Paul Kersey (still Bronson, yo) is now the footloose-and-fancy-free head architect of his own architectural firm in Los Angeles. Paul is dating a gal named Karen (Kay Lenz, who would go on to voice American Maid in the animated The Tick TV show), who is concerned about her teenage daughter Erica (Dana Barron). And with good cause. Erica is hooked on crack, it seems. And the neighborhood is swarming with crack dealers (mostly represented by Tim Russ, who would go on to play Tuvok in Star Trek: Voyager).
Yup, it looks like Paul Kersey is poised to waste some drug dealers. People my age might be able to vet this: Anti-drug films and TV shows of the late 1980s had a very distinctive flavor. They were very earnest about wanting to keep kids off drugs, but they clearly didn’t know a whole lot about drug culture. So their depiction of drugs and of drug-users is a strange demonic exaggeration. Sure, crack is not good for you, but in Death Wish 4, it’s treated as a sort of universal bugaboo, and not, well, crack cocaine. I saw a cartoon show from this era (yes, I watched "C.O.P.S.") wherein the bad guy was dealing a drug called “Crystal Twist.” The crack in Death Wish 4 is essentially Crystal Twist. Or Nuke, if you want to skew more mainstream.
So this film is essentially a three-episode flick, each one lasting almost exactly 30 minutes of screentime. In Act I, Paul is established as a successful architect with a girlfriend, and Erica dies. In Act II, Paul is pretty much just hired as an assassin by a local billionaire (John P. Ryan) to hunt down all the crack dealers in town, and blow up the goons belonging to the local mob boss Ed Zecharias (Perry Lopez). Paul is now an efficient killing machine, and, as kind of established in Death Wish 3, is a master of explosives. I wish I could have seen the transition a bit better. Y’know from Paul the everyman to Paul the assassin. In one scene, Paul blows up Danny Trejo with a bomb in a wine bottle. He eventually starts a gang war between two mob bosses, and there’s a spectacular shootout where the bad guys all kill each other.
But that’s only an hour in. There’s then a third act, wherein we learn that John P. Ryan was secretly the bad guy this whole time, and Paul was just eliminating drug competition for him, and there’s a dirty cop (Soon-Tek Oh), and Kay Lenz gets killed at the last minute, and yadda yadda yadda…
While the violence is fun, and there are still pleasant bugnuts aftertastes from the last film, much of The Crackdown (get it?) feels like padding. Like they had three undeveloped movies crammed into one. At least the film goes out with a bang. Paul, again armed with a rocket launcher, faces off with the bad guy, and blows him up out in the city street. The explosion is awesome. Really awesome, actually. It’s one of the most spectacular kills in action film history.
This is the only Death Wish film with no nudity. Thought you oughtta know.
And, like most series, we’re going to go out on a whimpering note. Let’s look at the ultra-cheap…
Death Wish: The Face of Death (dir. Allan A. Goldstein, 1994)
So Cannon handed off the series to Trimark Entertainment, which is known for many very low-budget straight-to-video flicks from the mid-1990s. This means we’ll see (and indeed notice) a very sharp drop in budget. The budget on Death Wish V was so low, in fact, that even the DVD I saw was marked by a particular drug store quality only found on extra-cheap straight-to-video movies. The sound was awful. Half the dialogue was garbled, and it seemed like loud machines were constantly off-camera. You could hear the gross empty echo of a plywood set. And here’s the curious thing: It was theatrically released. If you saw Death Wish V in theaters, please contact me. I want to hear all about your experience.
What do you need to know about the director? He would go on to direct 2001: A Space Travesty, which is often in the running for worst film ever.
So we’re back in New York. That bi-coastal living has gotta be tough on your average vigilante. Charles Bronson is an intense actor, so it’s sad to see him, at age 73, milking his badass shtick in a piece of crap like this. To be fair, even at age 73, he looks tough, but I think the world ran out of Death Wish desire after part 3. Now we’re just coasting. This would prove to be Bronson’s final feature film. Paul Kersey is living under an alias, and, once again, has a new girlfriend named Olivia (Lesley-Anne Down). The two of them are also looking after her 10-year-old daughter Kalinka. Actually, her name is Chelsea (Erica Lancaster), but I kept wanting to call her Kalinka. I can’t explain why. Here’s a tip for the women of the world: if you date Paul Kersey, you will die. If you’re unlucky, you’ll also be raped and mutilated first. If you have a daughter, she will, at the very least, be kidnapped.
Kersey’s call to vengeance this round is instigated by the psychopathic mob boss Tommy O’Shea (Michael Parks from Red State), who is Olivia’s ex-husband, and Kalinka’s father. O’Shea, in a peculiar way to make money, shakes down high fashion outlets for protection money. Olivia is, of course, a fashion designer, so it won’t be long before O’Shea tries to take down her business by mutilating her and then, later, killing her. Robert Joy from Amityville 3-D plays the cross-dressing assassin.
Once Olivia is dead, and Kalinka is kidnapped (natch), it’s time for the vengeance-ing. Only this time, no guns or rocket launchers for Paul. No, now it’s all oddball murders. Maybe Bronson was too tired of traditional firearms. Maybe the filmmakers thought guns were too violent. Whatever the reason, we have a poison cannoli, an exploding R/C soccer ball, and a pool of acid used as murder weapons.
Yes, I said R/C soccer ball. Paul, in a delicious Andy Sidaris turn, Paul buys a soccer ball that can be controlled through remote. He attaches a bomb to it, and drives it up to Robert Joy’s door. Robert Joy, wearing a pair of leather pants and a leather vest, picks up the ball and is exploded. It’s pretty awesome, although not as cool as the explosion from The Crackdown.
You know what? I don’t want to describe this cheap-ass movie anymore. It’s so bad. It’s almost hard to get through. The film’s only real credit (besides Bronson’s gameness) is the scenery-chewing of Michael Parks. He’s like a slimy cross between a drug dealer and Charles Nelson Reilly. He berates his thugs in a way that makes me suspect Parks improvised much of his dialogue. In one scene, he pelts his floozy with cannolis. That’s kinda fun. Some other notable things: A guy gets wrapped up in plastic and then shot. Paul manages to train a mannequin to drive a forklift. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen that. And O’Shea falls into Chekhov’s vat of acid. At the end, like in all the previous chapters, Paul is allowed to walk away by the cops. Bronson would walk away forever, and so would we, embarrassed and a little ashamed for having seen Death Wish: The Face of Death.
I have a weird theory. The Death Wish sequels are, in their pacing and tone and evenly punctuated murders, almost indistinguishable from slasher films. There is a slight note of revenge, and a vague idea that justice is being done, but the sheer visceral brutality is clearly what the films are focused on. As such, Paul Kersey might be less inclined to be lumped in with Dirty Harry, and more likely to set up base camp with Jason and Freddy and the like.
Also, when you take into consideration the well-circulated slasher conceit that the killers are vaguely altruistic, this theory makes even more sense. Slasher villains typically kill off the teenagers who indulge in dangerous sex and drink and rugs, right? Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers are, then, kind of puritanical in their morals, and seek to undo vice. Same with Paul Kersey. He is also, in many ways, just as stoic.
Consider what the Death Wish films would be like with one crucial difference: If Paul Kersey used a knife instead of a gun. That’s a badass slasher movie, isn’t it? The first Death Wish may have been a comment on crime run rampant, and offered an outlet for frustrated, crime-beset city-dwellers. By the time we get to the bugnuttery of Death Wish 3, though, we may as well be in horror franchise. Up the blood, slip in some spooky music, and voilà!
Okay, maybe that doesn’t hold too much water, but I have to do some pretty strenuous mental calisthenics to justify Death Wish 3. Maybe I oughtn’t. Maybe I should just let the film happen. It’s a thing of beauty. A pure unicorn of batsh*t in an action film landscape rife with wolves. Go watch it. You will love it. Yes, you will.