Twitter Plot Summary: Charles Bronson goes kill-crazy as a vigilante in this film directed by Michael “I’m Michael Winner” Winner.
After his wife is targeted and killed by a random group of young offenders – an incredibly young Jeff Goldblum among them – Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey seeks revenge by dishing out some vigilante justice on anyone who gets in his way. So begins a series of conflicts as Kersey gradually expands the scope of his vigilante justice and targets anybody causing trouble on the streets of his home city. All the while he attempts to stay under the radar and away from police scrutiny to ensure he remains free to get out on the streets and kill some thugs.
Death Wish appears to be another film of its time, highlighting public fears of increased violence. It has a distinct air of A Clockwork Orange to it, of the gradual erosion of society to the point of vigilante justice. And what about America’s gun laws? This has been a contentious issue for many years, and the validity of owning a weapon in this context is questionable. Of course, that could also be reading far too much into it. This is a film directed by Michael Winner after all.
But then, what would we do if placed in the same situation? If your wife and child had been murdered and then somebody handed you a gun, giving you free reign to seek vengeance? It’s a tricky proposition, one that has been explored in depth in the comic 100 Bullets. The difference there being that the vigilante justice would be untraceable and, supposedly, without further repercussions, whereas in Death Wish there is the constant risk that Kersey will be discovered and dragged kicking and screaming into police custody. Indeed, this is more apparent at the very beginning where he practically flunks his attempts to take down the gang, and despite his increasing skills the more people he kills the bigger the target he paints on his own back.
Bronson seems an unlikely choice for a hero vigilante, but that is partly why his character works so well. Ignoring his previous knowledge and experience of firing weapons, Kersey is a believable vigilante simply because he doesn’t fit the archetype. There is much fun to be had with an aged man bumping off people far younger than he is, of watching hoodlums run scared and not just because of his amazing moustache.
The template established by Death Wish is one that has been repeated many a time since. Not only in the four (yes, four) Death Wish sequels, but consistently over the last seven or eight years and the surge of “geriaction” movies – mostly starring Liam Neeson. What is most striking is the analysis of Kersey as a character, the psychological reasons for doing what he does. And proving that, ultimately, it may be something that is as addictive as smoking or drinking. That once the killing has started, it isn’t something that can be given up so easily. This in itself is a scary thought, and one that filters through your understanding of the film throughout.