To coincide with Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake, why not take a look back at the original five Death Wish films starring Charles Bronson, beginning in 1974 within the New Hollywood era and concluding as an embarrassing glorified TV-Movie in 1994. From grittiness to self-parody, below are the original Death Wish films:
Death Wish (1974)
Under the direction of Michael Winner for the fourth time, Charles Bronson – six years fresh from Once Upon a Time in the West – is New York based architect, Paul Kersey. Leading a happy life with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, Paul has it all…until both his wife and daughter are brutally assaulted and raped by a gang led by a young Jeff Goldblum. Paul’s wife dies, but his daughter survives, though mentally tormented for the rest of her life after the attacks. The loss of his wife and estrangement of his daughter leads Paul revisit an upbringing around guns (his dad was a hunter), and subsequently become a vigilante, targeting every thug in New York, though narrowly avoiding the police.
As Death Wish was released within the New Hollywood era of American filmmaking, it was one of many films to feature edgier or harder content, though Death Wish went one step further by actually being viciously disturbing – a gritty disturbance that would not be replicated in the franchise, though imitated.
As a piece of filmmaking one fascination in Death Wish involves the arrangement of the title sequence and score: prior to the title sequence, Paul is on holiday with his wife, having fun on the beach. Using bright imagery, this seems to be a good moment during the lives and marriage of Paul and Joanna (Peyton Place’s Hope Lange), though when the title sequence appears, the holiday is over, and the audience is presented with a silhouette skyline of New York, dark colours, a darker score, and then the title itself.
In terms of violence, Paul’s vigilante occurrences inspire his mysterious self to become a community hero and inspiration as such. Furthermore, when Paul shoots you to the ground, without any remorse or consideration, he shoots you again when you are down to confirm the kill – this is very dark stuff. Essentially, Paul Kersey is pure anti-hero, and ultimately, he gets away with it.
Ultimately, the original Death Wish is without doubt the finest work of Michael Winner, and Charles Bronson when not in an ensemble cast, though its glorifying of violence, vigilantism and overall grittiness would cause a humongous uproar if released today.
Death Wish II (1982)
Charles Bronson is Paul Kersey under the direction of Michael Winner once again, but this time, Paul is living in LA.
Trying to lead a normal life again, Paul is dating KABC news reporter, Geri Nichols (Bronson’s late wife and frequent co-star, Jill Ireland), though his daughter, Carol (Tourist Trap’s Robin Sherwood) is still mentally disturbed from the events in the first Death Wish, however, she is steadily progressing back to normality.
During a shopping afternoon with his girlfriend and daughter, Paul is confronted by thugs and has his wallet stolen in an ice cream queue. As Paul fails to retrieve his wallet, the thugs are presented with the opportunity to break into Paul’s home, as his address and other details were within his wallet. Unfortunately, the gang break in and rape Paul’s housekeeper, Rosario (Out of the Dark’s Silvana Gallardo), and kidnap Carol. Subsequently, in the gang’s hideout, Carol is raped, though she seems almost oblivious to what is going on. Moments later, however, Carol attempts to escape, though all she manages to do is jump through a glass window and land impaled on an iron fence.
Paul has no choice but to return to his once vigilant ways, and in doing so, he rents a run-of-the-mill room for $50 per month as a hideout to store his weapons and change into his “vigilante clothes”. Unlike Death Wish, Paul actually targets the perpetrators of his family’s crime in Death Wish II, and not just irrelevant thugs.
Death Wish II, like its predecessor, is quite violent, however it really isn’t as gritty or disturbing, but still quite violent. Notably, Death Wish II is somewhat unrealistic in places, though slightly more creative, but just a tad over-the-top. A shift in tone as well would set a precedent of how the Death Wish franchise would live on. Ultimately, Death Wish II is just a much weaker version of the first Death Wish.
Death Wish 3 (1985)
Wow, Death Wish 3 is certainly a major shift in the franchise. Collaborating for one last time in the Death Wish franchise, Michael Winner and Charles Bronson deliver an action film that is pure 80s B-Movie, and not New Hollywood grittiness.
Paul Kersey returns to New York to visit his old friend, Charley (Haunted Honeymoon’s Francis Drake), though the latter is attacked and killed in his apartment by a selection of the gang who own a suburb of East New York. Arriving just before his death, Paul can’t believe what he’s seeing, but then the police arrive too, and of course, Paul is arrested. The police come to the quick conclusion that Paul didn’t kill Charley, however, Inspector Richard Shriker (The X-Files’ Ed Lauter) knows that Paul is The Vigilante from the events of the first two Death Wish films, thus he keeps Paul in police custody for no actual charge.
Now things get weird and the actual point of Death Wish goes out the window: Inspector Shriker offers Paul the opportunity to be an unofficial vigilante for the police, aiming to clean-up the gang-ridden war zones. “Creeps killing creeps” is what Inspector Shriker refers to it as.
Rather than being on a revenge mission or vendetta, Paul – “looking after” Charley’s apartment – acts as a neighbourhood hardman, trying to protect the apartment building’s residents against the gangs roaming the area. Paul sets traps in apartments for the gang members to get hurt, such as a sheet of nails under a window and a plank with two nails in it rising up to the window during a forced entry…
With Paul carrying out immediate executions on bag thieves, for example, there certainly is a dystopian feel to Death Wish 3, of which was not present in the preceding films.
The main gang itself in Death Wish 3, led by Bennett Cross (Happy Days’ Gavin O’Herlihy), of whom, whilst in lockup with Paul early on says, “I’m going to kill a little old lady just for you.” His gang, also featuring Alex Winter of the Bill & Ted films as Hermosa, are essentially just a sugar-free version of Toecutter’s gang from Mad Max.
In saying that Death Wish 3 is “pure 80s B-Movie”, this term is quite often evident in the excruciatingly (and hilariously) overdone deaths from being shot, explosions, weapons itself, and the fact that Paul fires an RPG at Bennett Cross despite only being a few metres away from him in the same room. Michael Winner really went out with a bang in the Death Wish Franchise.
Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987)
Directed by J. Lee Thompson, Death Wish 4 is neither as gritty as the original Death Wish nor as over-the-top as Death Wish 3; it doesn’t even sit in between. Back in LA, Paul Kersey is presented in the workplace again, thus suggesting that he is back to leading a normal life. Additionally, Paul is living with his partner of two years and her daughter of whom they share a father-daughter bond.
The opening of Death Wish 4 is a masterpiece in trickery, as during the title sequence, a lone woman is presented to be walking to her car within a multi-storey car park, but when her car won’t start, the trouble starts instead. Out of nowhere, one guy appears in masked clothing, then two appear, then three appear, then four appear, and then the four men are gone – the suspense is incredible. The four masked men re-appear, break into her car and attempt to rape her, but they notice a lonesome man in the shadows: it’s Paul Kersey! After killing them all but one, Paul is about to finish the job, but then he sees his own face in the place of the thug’s face, and then Paul wakes up from a nightmare – the opening, whilst brilliant filmmaking, also confirms that vigilantism lies within the subconscious of Paul, of which is a interesting character development throughout the franchise.
Immediately after the opening, Paul’s potential step-daughter, Erica (National Lampoon’s Vacation’s Dana Barron) enters a popular late-evening videogame arcade where the cocaine deals are taking place. Young and edging to be cool, Erica and her boyfriend get some cocaine, but something goes wrong: Erica overdoses and dies. Having felt like he’s lost his own daughter again, Paul wants revenge, so he finds the person at the arcade who sold the cocaine, and kills him by shooting him onto the lines powering old-style bumper cars.
Mysteriously, Paul is called by the wealthy-looking, Nathan White (Runaway Train’s John P. Ryan), who wants Paul to track down and kill the chain and hierarchy of drug suppliers who supplied the cocaine that killed both Nathan’s daughter and Erica. Of course, Paul is willing to do so. In a hilarious example of eliminating a drug dealer, Paul implants an explosive within a wine bottle – killing none other than Machete’s Danny Trejo!
Paul’s scenarios of contacting Nathan for drug dealer details and whereabouts, then setting up an occasion to infiltrate them somehow (as a waiter or wine merchant etc), then killing the target and escaping, looks to be a clear influence of select gameplay from the 2000s Grand Theft Auto video games, of which are influenced by films of this type.
Wiping out most of LA’s cocaine dealers, Paul is more of a hero in Death Wish 4 than in any other Death Wish film, but having murdered these drug dealers, does that then obliterate the good that he’s done for the helpless teens and young adults who are fall foul of drug abuse?
Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994)
How did the Death Wish franchise get to this?
Simply awful, Death Wish V isn’t really a disappointment because anyone who knew about the production values, the story, and its action actor being 72 upon release, would have known that Death Wish V was going to be a complete joke.
In a TV-Movie image quality, Death Wish V opens with Paul Kersey back in New York, attending a fashion show with his partner and her child. The father of the child and sugar-free Hugh Heffner, Tommy O’Shea (From Dusk till Dawn’s Michael Parks), is the villain of Death Wish V.
Tommy O’Shea’s intent is to be in possession of his daughter, so he has his daughter’s mother killed, with custody reverting to him. Paul doesn’t like this at all, and initially punches Tommy because he wants custody himself. So in 20 years, Paul Kersey has gone from avenging his family and killing thugs to fighting for child custody. It gets better: from firing RPGs at gang members, Paul kills one of Tommy’s men by pouring powdered cyanide on cannoli, and later, Paul tries out a remote control football for his murderous plans.
Of course, various amounts of violence – both soft and over-the-top – are present throughout Death Wish V, but sadly, this concluding instalment in the original Death Wish series is too watered down and boring.
Ultimately, Death Wish V is a complete insult to the acting career of Charles Bronson, and action cinema in general. There are no merit-worthy features in Death Wish V, though managing to watch the whole film without falling asleep is certainly a worthy achievement and more impressive than any action element of this concluding sequel.
Ultimately, the Death Wish franchise is a weird one because the tone and meaning of each instalment varies drastically. If it is essential to consume one viewing of an original Death Wish film prior to seeing Eli Roth’s remake, then the only worthwhile option is to watch the gritty and disturbing original Death Wish from 1974, but be prepared.