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Death Wish (1974)

by on 2011/01/02

“If you ever get tired of living in that toilet, you are welcome here.”

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If you think you are suffering from post-holiday depression right now, try the life of Death Wish’s Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) on for size. Back from an idyllic holiday in Hawaii with his wife, Joanna (Hope Lange), the couple returns to the snow-covered, crime-ridden, gridlocked city of New York.

While his wife sadly hangs up her Hawaiian lei on the dresser, Kersey heads off to work to his white-collar job as an architect. Button-down, liberal, conscientious objector Kersey is mocked by colleagues for having a bleeding heart for the poor.

A word here: if you haven’t seen the movie, please do me a favour and try to imagine Charles Bronson as a pacifist in a three-piece suit… Hard to do, isn’t it?

Right, back to the review. It is patently obvious from the first few minutes of this 1974 revenge classic, which went on to spawn four more instalments, that the real enemy of this piece is New York City.  You are led to one and only conclusion: New York is a festering cesspool of crime. Grey, filthy, crowded with ranting homeless people, and gangs of sneering punks, that’s New York in Death Wish.

Kersey’s lovely wife and daughter head out for a bit of wintry shopping – lambs to the slaughter.  A simple trip to the grocery store in this movie’s New York is apparently a death sentence when a gang of turkey-juggling hooligans find out mom and daughter’s swanky address from a home-delivery order.

The ensuing act of violence really has to be seen to be believed. Directed by Michael Winner, this gritty film pulls absolutely no punches in this home invasion, assault and rape scene. Notable here is Jeff Goldblum’s early film credit as “Freak #1.” Goldblum plays the wretchedly unsympathetic, knife-wielding maniac all the way, sporting a Jughead hat and wild, rolling, crazy eyes. (I suspect Mr. Goldblum might have had a little difficulty getting dates after this particular part, or in fact, having women make eye contact with him…)

In the aftermath of the attack, Kersey’s wife is dead and his daughter is catatonic. Kersey’s emotionally dead, returning to his apartment and his job a broken man. And all around him there’s New York, with its bloody mandibles ready to tear at him again and again.

We get to see Kersey’s slow, meandering build (and I do mean slow and meandering) into a flinty vigilante. First he snags a few rolls of quarters from the bank and shoves them into a sock to construct a handy bludgeon. He belts a mugger on the street but his hands shake so much he can barely take a shot of liquor to quiet his nerves.

Then his boss sends him to Texas for a land development project. Cut to land survey montages, blue prints, discussions of bulldozing hills. This Lone Star tangent serves the primary purpose of equipping Kersey with a hand gun and giving this jaded New Yorker a sampling of good, old rooting-tooting Texan thinking.

Now fully armed and filled with a sense of frontier justice, Kersey takes to walking down cold dank alleys and flashes cash at seedy bars.  Every night he trolls the dark streets of New York and he’s the bait. And each thug goes down the same way, with a gutful of lead.

There’s some genuinely entertaining moments of turnabout, with Kersey blasting switchblade-flashing muggers through a newspaper, a trench coat. There’s nothing better and scarier than Charles Bronson’s smile.

This 93-minute film has a message as blunt and skull-cracking as a black sock full of quarters. We learn guns are clearly our friends. Clearly. When due process drags its heels, you can make justice tap dance with a few well-placed bullets.

NRA politics aside, despite the rather circuitous route we take through Kersey’s transformation, Death Wish is just how I remember it. A delicious dish of frosty revenge, perfect for the post-holiday doldrums.

* * *

Rated R for brutal violence in general and a particularly brutal sexual assault

93 minutes

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