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Death Wish
1974 - R - 93 Mins.
Director: Michael Winner
Producer: Dino de Laurentiis
Written By: Wendell Mayes, from Brian Garfield\'s novel
Starring: Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia, Steven Keats, William Redfield
Review by: Jake Cremins

Meet my friends: Mr. Smith & Mr. Wesson
Charles Bronson is a name by now synonymous with action films, so much that it's a real surprise to see how convincing he is as a mild-mannered liberal in 'Death Wish.' This movie pretty much sealed his fate, and he ended up playing more men seeking revenge for more dead relatives than just about anyone in the movies, but this is one of the only films where violence seems forced upon him, instead of the other way around. By the time Bronson begins taking to the streets and shooting would-be muggers, the movie has gotten nearly fascinating, because this is not at all the person he was when we first met him.

Yes, this is cathartic. I myself was mugged a couple of weeks before seeing this, and couldn't help but feel a cheap, ignoble thrill at seeing a greasy thug pull a gun on Bronson, demand his money, and then get shot in the stomach with a look of utter surprise stamped on his face. This was, I hear, why the movie was such a phenomenon in 1974; if ever there was a story frustrated urban audiences could take to heart, this would be it. But 'Death Wish' is more than that, and subtler. This is not one of those action films where, as Roger Ebert has described, the problem is that the bad guys are alive, and the solution is to kill them. It is a portrait of a man tortured by grief and rage, and one in which the solution he's found may have left him more damaged than he was when he started.

Bronson is Paul Kersey, who as the film opens is returning from a Hawaiian vacation with his wife (Hope Lange, as lovely as ever). There are a few scenes of domestic bliss, and then one afternoon his wife and daughter are attacked, raped and beaten in their own home by a gang of hoodlums pretending to be delivery boys from the grocery store. His wife dies at the hospital, and his daughter retreats into herself and is eventually institutionalized, and so in a couple of days Kersey's life has more or less fallen apart. Is there a chance that the three murderers can be found, and some closure brought to this? Don't bother asking.

So Kersey grieves, and he comes home to an empty apartment, and then one day he finds himself getting rolls of quarters at the bank and putting them into a sock. Not long later a man tries to mug him and Kersey scares him away after one good blow to the face. When he comes home he feels a kind of savage triumph--he's found a way to fight back, to release his frustration. Then he takes a business trip to Arizona and finds that the man he's meeting with is a gun enthusiast, and what happens after that is more or less inevitable.

What's really admirable about 'Death Wish' is how thoughtful it is in approaching and leaving each action sequence. Take the first one, when Kersey decides to walk through Central Park at night and is, unsurprisingly, accosted by a junkie who demands all of his money. Kersey does pretty much what you're expecting, but before that happens we get a most interesting closeup of his face. It is the look of a man who knows that he has gone too far but can no longer help himself; he seems almost unable to believe that he is about to do this. With that same expression, he whirls around and pulls the trigger, and here is the place where most action movies would have the hero tossing off a witty one-liner about cleaning the trash off the streets. In this movie, he runs home and vomits.

But he goes back out again, and this time it is easier, and so it goes. We, meanwhile, are torn between cheering him on and wanting him to get professional help: whatever public service he may be performing, these are not the acts of a healthy man. There is an incredibly tense scene when Kersey murders two men in a subway car and comes within a hair's breadth of being caught, and only when it's over do we realize that we weren't really sure what we wanted to happen. The citizens of New York in this movie are less conflicted: after Kersey's killings are connected by the police and he is dubbed "The Vigilante" by the press, we see news reports where citizens joyously recount their own successful attempts to fight back after taking the Vigilante's example to heart. In a much-mentioned plot point that is kind of wonderful, we learn that muggings and other crimes have dropped by staggering amounts: the criminals are afraid of being shot.

But what about Kersey? He grows brighter and more cheerful in his everday life, and in a way he really is committing himself in the fight of good against evil, but the fact that he's doing this by becoming a mass murderer cannot be escaped. You have to wonder how many criminals he's going to have to kill before he feels he's done his wife and daughter justice, and then you realize that there is no answer at all. In the chilling last shot of the film, when Bronson smiles cheerfully into the camera, we can see that something has gone out of him and made him dead around the eyes. He has turned into somebody else. The warmth and love he showed in the early scenes has disappeared, and it is never coming back.
Movie Guru Rating
An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater.
  4 out of 5 stars

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