Monday 4 April 2016

Movie Review: Death Wish (1974)

A modest action film, Death Wish launched the urban vigilantism sub-genre and captured the unspoken mood of a national psyche looking for easy answers to escape the trauma inflicted by rampant crime.

Middle-aged architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) lives in New York with his wife Joanna (Hope Lange), and works for a large corporation that invests in real estate development projects. His daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) is married to the mild mannered Jack (Steven Keats). Although the city is gripped by violent crime with muggings and murders at an all time high, Paul is liberal in his views and empathizes with the socially disadvantaged. His family is torn apart when three thugs invade his house, killing Joanna and raping Carol, who is traumatized and left in a vegetative state.

To escape his nightmare, Paul accepts a temporary assignment to work on a project in Tucson, where land developer Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) reintroduces him to simpler rural societal laws, where gun ownership is the norm and law and order still rule the streets. Paul rediscovers his childhood love for guns, and starts to ponder his role in avenging his wife's death. Back in New York, Paul begins to invite encounters with muggers, and it does not take him long to get addicted to the rush of eliminating street thugs wherever he can find them. His acts of vigilantism quickly capture the imagination of the public and the media, causing a headache for police Lieutenant Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia).

With urban centres grappling with an increasingly violent wave of crime, Death Wish sparked debate and controversy upon its release. The 1972 book by Brian Garfield carried an anti-revenge theme, but the screenplay by Wendell Mayes is much less ambiguous: not only are Paul Kersey's actions cathartic (his life brightens up considerably), his crusade of violent retaliation single-handedly drives down the rate of crime. The vigilante becomes a local legend, his mysterious identity only helping to elevate his stature to that of comic book superhero.

As for the film itself, it's a relatively unassuming Dino De Laurentiis production, directed by Michael Winner and made much better that it needed to be thanks to a careful, deliberate approach. Mayes' script takes its time to set the the context and portray the Kerseys as a normal, loving couple. The interlude in Tucson is an essential inflection point as the distance from New York provides Paul with a new perspective on how things can be, rather than just accepting what they are. Even when Paul starts his quest to confront the evil that lurks around every street corner, his emotions range from horror at his own actions to sheer exhilaration, and Winner allows each of these moments to play out.

The action scenes are handled well and occur mostly in the shadow of the night with locations including Central Park, back alleys, subway stations and on-board subway trains. Winner places Bronson squarely in his zone of comfort as a man of few words but many bullets, and few things are as good as Bronson shooting bad guys first and forgetting the part about asking any questions.

The supporting cast includes Hope Lange in the small but pivotal role as the primary victim Joanna, while Vincent Gardenia chews his subordinates, his superiors and the surrounding scenery as the police lieutenant not liking what he's up against but determined to crush it nevertheless. Less effective is a forgettable performance from Steven Keats, overwhelmed by his own hair as Kersey's son-in-law. Jeff Goldblum, Olympia Dukakis, and an uncredited Denzel Washington appear in small pre-stardom roles, as do Christopher Guest and Marcia Jean Kurtz.

Death Wish manages to be both an enjoyable action rout and a thought-provoking social commentary. And with Bronson holding the gun, any debate about the efficacy of vigilante justice is settled with deadly efficiency.

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