Before “The Punisher” ever graced the big screen director Michael winner’s 1974 revenge flick brought to screen a psychotic man armed with a hand gun avenging his family who suffered a wicked fate by the hands of senseless crime. In a time where violence and rape was rampant in New York City, “Death Wish” is still a surprising little thriller that not only puts on display the grim and grimy depths of the Big Apple in the seventies, but the descent in to sheer lunacy one mild mannered man takes when his wife and daughter are attacked and raped in their apartment. The thugs get away but protagonist Paul Kersey’s wife dies and he’s forced to bear witness to his daughter lose her sanity due to the severity of the attack she and her mother endured.
While campy in some instances featuring a few news reports showing Kersey’s impact on a frightened city, “Death Wish” is an otherwise morbid look at a man who is sick and tired of being victimized who fights back. Bronson, the man the myth, begins life as an average middle class schmuck, someone who does his job and moves on with his life. Winner begins the film on a serene note with Kersey doing as much as possible to savor a little beach trip with his wife Joanna aiming and shooting pictures of her, a sort of twisted preamble to the aiming and shooting he’d soon be doing when wielding a gun. The tone for “Death Wish” changes immensely throughout the story as we start out in something of a normal relationship drama twisted by sick thugs who break in to Kersey’s family’s house and ravage them for reasons we’re never told. Winner thankfully takes his time with the story leading in to the rampage of Kersey where he’s left with no options after his wife and daughter are taken out of his lives.
Like every vigilante there’s a certain journey he endures in the story and here he happens upon the South where he’s shown the benefits of the hand gun and given one by a friendly business associate urging him to drop his liberal agenda and come home to ammunition. Clearly this is a revenge fantasy, one of which involves a man wreaking havoc on a city without much repercussions like we saw in “Dirty Harry.” Here Kersey is never questioned, his morality or psychological issues never explored, it’s merely a quiet man becoming slowly unhinged as he learns to cope with death and gains a perspective that any hot blooded gun wielding man with a horrific back story would possess. The criminals are the criminals, and he’s the deterrent for better or for worse. What I did enjoy was that Winner emphasizes the inherent undertone of the minority criminal being taken down more often than that of the Caucasian one dabbling with the potential for a racial agenda among the writer and Kersey himself.
Like “Ms. 45” that arrived years later, “Death Wish” involves Kersey purposely putting himself in danger to capture predators who hide in parks and subways, this sets us up for violent scenarios where Kersey is able to shoot down thugs and escapes by the skin of his teeth. The inevitable conclusion ends with Kersey’s siege blowing up in his face and the police having little option but to ponder if his capture will mean the end of a crime spree, or the beginning of a revolt by scorned New Yorkers tired of being preyed upon. The final scene brings the whole narrative full circle where we’re left with a clear cut view of how Kersey has evolved and what he intends to do once he’s settled in to his new territory. It’s a delivery of a gesture only Bronson could have given audiences that leaves us riled up and very uneasy. Pretty much living up to the hype, “Death Wish” is a morbid little revenge thriller with the immortal Charles Bronson giving a memorable performance as a pacifist drawn in to violence as an unforgiving vigilante by a violent unforgiving world. However when all is said and done, this would have been a much better movie with Steve McQueen. There I said.