“Maybe, just maybe…Maybe 3,000 years from now, when the written word has been lost to the degradations of the impending neo-Dark Age, travelling minstrels, jesters and shit, juggling people, will tell tales of a warrior realm known as New York; New York, NY!! A land that produced heroes whose exploits transcended time and earned them (and their locale) mythic status. And maybe, like glorious Troy, some future explorer/critic/archeologist whatever, man… will, with the Death Wish screenplay in his hands and wanderlust in his heart, land on the shores of Pete Stuyvesant’s town and unearth the fact that there REALLY WAS a place known as East New York and that the tales were (probably) all true!! We are the myths, Man!!” – Middle-Aged man ranting on Downtown 1 train, January 2013
“I’m Gonna Kill A Little Old Lady, Just For You” – Manny Fraker, Death Wish 3
As any modern artist prone to archetype knows, great epic settings (Tatooine, Middle-Earth, and Hogwarts) are the back-bone of any hero’s journey. It is from within a specific place/time that characters are formed, obstacles are stacked and challenges are met. It doesn’t matter if the locales are real or not, but familiarity helps with regards to capturing the contemporary zeitgeist. That culturally agreed on association, however, is never real in the sense of historicity, in fact it can’t be. Not in cinema – not even in documentary form. The city in film (lower-cased i.e. NOT New York) should always come across as a dream; an amorphous Jungian agreement that allows for plot propulsion and, at times, wanton, repercussion-less ass-kicking. As Christopher Sorrentino writes, the filmed city “…that always fails is the one that denies the dream that struggles to impose the very logic and order of the street grid in its portrayal.”
The City (Big “C” now) as portrayed in Death Wish 3 (no Roman numerals here – just a big, fucking red “3”) never for a moment denies that dream. The City here is a comic book fantasy, taken verbatim from a daydreaming 3rd grader (me) contemplating what the City may have looked like RIGHT BEFORE that runaway comet slammed earth during the intro to Thundarr: The Barbarian (still the greatest animated depiction of NYC ever loosed on pre-pubescent boys). Behold the last days of regressed humanity!! The Dream Master of Death Wish 3, then, is Director Michael Winner, who had worked with Charles Bronson several times before (including the first two Death Wish films) and who has never had any interest in exacting authenticity. Maybe that comes from his outsider status as a Brit, or maybe he just doesn’t give a shit about establishing place as much as he does about establishing motive. Whatever the reason his imposition of fantasy over City reality is at the core what makes the film work.
It is important to note that Winner’s brand of fantasy justice NEEDS to take place in a large city – either New York or Los Angeles. He needs the size and immensity of scale (City, capital “C”) to project all that is wrong with humanity and the bigger the city the more fun it becomes to toss out the depravity at max levels; to show the bloated carcass of society as it suns itself on the heat rock of Metropolis. So, like the Hannah- Barbara world of Thundarr it becomes cartoonish, a dreamy parody of what a big city might be, and for me watching as a kid on pirated cable in middle-America, this is exactly what I thought New York was. Death Wish 3 was my first real exposure to New York and (along with Larry Cohen’s masterful Q: The Winged Serpent) set my expectations when I moved to the City straight out of high-school.
Right from the start you know this is going to be a special movie. The avenger is entering the festering hell-hole that is Port Authority, a cinematic terminus for all forms of vile proto-humanity. This is the touchdown point, where the warrior begins his rescue of the helpless urbanite masses who are impotent in the face of gangs and new-wave savagery. His friend has been killed by the local gang during a shakedown. The police are incapable of handling the situation and the higher up elected officials are indifferent to civic suffering unless it’s an election year. And so, in typical warrior mythos-style in comes Paul Kersey, an outsider to this new society (where even women are now vicious motorcycle gang killers!! Lady Criminals!) that has seemingly gotten more insane since the death of his wife, daughter, girlfriend, housekeeper, etc. A Righter of Wrongs and last hope for the ethnically mixed group of survivors trying to survive the maelstrom of mid-80s New York, Kersey is a High Planes Drifter for his time.
The New York that Kersey comes back to in Death Wish 3 is portrayed by Winner as a very different place than the one he left (ostensibly in 1974 when he got out of town ahead of the cops after his first vigilante crackdown). The thugs are still preying on the innocent masses, but there are now more of them as represented by Manny Fraker (a tour de force performance by Gavan O’Herlihy) and his gang of wanton, sometimes face-painted maniacs. The violence is wholesale and there are no signs of an end to the epidemic. Neighborhoods have been abandoned and it is very much caracitured post-apocalypse bleak. Was there any reality in this portrayal? Hard to say from my contemporary Midwestern view, but the facts are that in the ten years since Kersey went West, New York did see a crime rate that spiked in the early/mid-‘80s due to the crack epidemic amongst other things. That period also saw some high profile crazy going on, such as The Son of Sam murders (1977) and Sid stabbing Nancy at the Chelsea Hotel in 1978 (the image of Crazed Punk Murder lends itself nicely to the DW3 imagery of leather clad kids running amok killing each other and anyone else in their path). The shooting of John Lennon (1980) by a deranged super-fan in the posh Central Park West area served to prove the Death Wish thesis that “no one is safe regardless of affluence – Death and misery will find you because you live in the City”. A Kersey-like response to the seemingly unending bad-guy violence was counter-violence by upstanding citizens. When Bernie Goetz opened fire on 4 would-be muggers on a subway platform in December 1984, it was basically a DW3 promo come to life.
Truth is, by the mid-‘80s hyper-violence was becoming the new norm in movies. 1986’s First Blood: Pt. II (just plain “Rambo” to the uninitiated) was a far cry substantively from its predecessor, First Blood (1982), which is an intelligent look at the struggles of an unwanted soldier adjusting to societal re-entry. Aside from being possibly the greatest movie about Vietnam ever made, First Blood like the first Death Wish, is less about explosions and mayhem than it is about examining the psyche of men coming to terms with their new realities. Commando and Invasion USA, both released the same year as Death Wish 3 (1985), established massive FIREPOWER (!) as THE “hook”. Weaponry began to if not overshadow human acting, at least be a close second in the billing of the hyper-masculine avenger film. Lest you think this was all about the testes, note that women were not exempt from this trend. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley metamorphosed between Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and James Cameron Aliens (1986) from an officer on a commercial shipping shuttle into an ass kicking leader of Space Marines complete with exo-skeleton battle suit. The melding of human and machine allowed for the comic-book cyborg kill machines that we now take for granted as normal (Terminator, Deadpool). It can be said with conviction that Paul Kersey was the jumping-off point for this hyper-realist trend in violence, and as the original I still find his character as played by Bronson to be the most compelling as an “anti-hero” in the AMC/millennial sense.
To be sure, there were New York antiheroes before Paul Kersey (Terry Malloy, “Popeye” Doyle, The Corleones) but none came from such a banal place as Kersey. He is an upper West Side architect, who vacations in Hawaii with his older (not elderly) wife, and who probably likes the occasional Gray’s Papaya dog and roots silently for the Knicks. He has brown patches on the elbows of his sport jacket. He does not represent authority like other death-dealing ‘80s icons. Harry Callahan’s (Clint Eastwood) violence can be legitimized via his law enforcement affiliation, and even Stallone’s John Rambo (and Robert Ginty’s The Exterminator character for that matter) have some social sanction due to professional military training and subsequent service in Vietnam. These were men trained to do violence against the worst offenders of post-World War II American decency codes; the low-life criminals preying on “decent” Americans – whether they be murderous drug pushers in San Francisco or barbaric communists in Southeast Asia.
Bronson’s Kersey is different. He’s a white-collar professional who we learn in the first film was actually a conscientious objector during the Korean War and served in a non-combat, medical role. He is clearly not a man disposed to violence. He as an architect. A career choice not randomly thrown in by Death Wish screen-writer Wendall Mayes, but rather one that represents the character’s pre-tragedy worldview and positions Kersey as a creator and nurturer of the City space that he dwells in. Kersey is not an outsider, mistakenly wandering into a New York that “he shouldn’t be in”. This isn’t urbane, European Kurtz losing his shit in the jungles of the Congo, or even the white Gramercy Park yuppie making a fate-tempting side trip to the South Bronx. He is of the same City and the same neighborhood that will eventually wrong him. He is betrayed while inside his Upper West Side cocoon. His wife and kid are done in by an ill-fated trip to D’agostino’s (D’agostino’s!). The sanction for Kersey does not come from military training or a police background. His license to kill is predicated on the fact that he is a man playing by the rules and gets fucked by society regardless. From that origin is birthed an imbalanced man struggling against himself to play civilized in an imbalanced world. It’s a tale as old as New York itself, and one that does occasionally devolve into kill crazy rampages. That story has been told ad infinitum – but never as good as it was in the Death Wish pentalogy.
Review by L.E.S. Cordell