Charles Bronson’s lengthy string of star vehi­cles for Cannon films fills a unique niche in the action movie world: crit­ics almost uni­ver­sal­ly detest­ed them but they were a gold mine for exploita­tion fans thanks to their pen­chant for sleaze and over-the-top sit­u­a­tions.  Death Wish 3 is a key title for many in the Bronson-at-Cannon oeu­vre. isn’t as sleazy as, say, 10 To Midnight but it still might be the most over-the-top of that crazy bunch.  Like many of the pop­u­lar action films of the 80’s, it’s impos­si­ble to believe a film this per­verse­ly car­toon­ish and un-P.C. could get the green light today.

Death Wish 3 aban­dons any pre­tense of the believ­abil­i­ty that dis­tin­guished the first Death Wish and inter­mit­tent­ly popped up in part two. This time, Paul Kersey (Bronson) is head­ed to vis­it a bud­dy in ‘east New York’ (most of the film was shot in England). Before he can get there, the friend is killed by the thugs who dom­i­nate the neigh­bor­hood. Kersey walks in just in time for the cops to mis­take him for the killer.  While cool­ing his heels in jail, he has his first run in with Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy), the reverse-mohawked lead­er of the punks who rule the local streets.

Things take an upturn when Kersey is sprung from jail by the griz­zled chief (Ed Lauter). He pitch­es Kersey an inter­est­ing idea: he’ll let him go if Kersey returns to his friend’s bor­ough and starts off­ing Fraker’s gang for him.  Kersey moves into his buddy’s place, learns the lay of the land from his neigh­bor Bennett (Martin Balsam) and starts giv­ing Fraker and his pals some trou­ble. Fraker responds by killing a few of Kersey’s friends so Kersey mail-orders some seri­ous hard­ware and decides to paint the ghet­to red.

In terms of seri­ous film­mak­ing, there’s real­ly not any­thing nice to say about Death Wish 3. It has no inter­est in dimen­sion­al char­ac­ters, believ­able plot­ting or any con­ces­sions to the real­i­ty that you and I know.  It also con­stant­ly rewrites the story’s rules to fit its mood at any given moment – for instance, the seem­ing­ly lib­er­al defense attor­ney (Deborah Raffin) who inex­plic­a­bly takes a shine to Kersey gives a from-out-of-nowhere speech about her hatred of crim­i­nals and the need for true jus­tice just so the movie can give her and Kersey some­thing to bond over.  Simply put, Death Wish 3 is to the action film what the slash­er flick is to the hor­ror gen­re — the gen­re out­ing reduced to its crud­est and most mechan­i­cal lev­el, an excuse to pick ‘em up and put ‘em down.

The best ele­ment of Death Wish 3 is its cast.  Bronson looks a bit bored at times, par­tic­u­lar­ly with the mono­syl­lab­ic dia­logue he gets here (“I like chick­en.  Chicken’s good.”) but he pro­vides a solid pres­ence through­out.  Bronson is backed up nice­ly by a gag­gle of famil­iar faces like Lauter, Balsam and Raffin, plus Gavan O’Herlihy fills the role of the icy, socio­pathic gang lead­er per­fect­ly.  Those who remem­ber him as Chuck Cunningham from the ear­ly era of Happy Days are in for a shock.  Those who rev­el in the embar­rass­ing ear­ly roles of future celebs will be amused by the pres­ence of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Marina Sirtis, who bare­ly says a word as a rape vic­tim, and a pre-Bill & Ted Alex Winter as a thug who inspire the film’s most quotable bit of ran­cid dia­logue (you’ll know it when you hear it).  None of the­se thes­ps are given any­thing to do besides occa­sion­al­ly chew some scenery but they add to the film’s odd, col­or­ful nature.

The result­ing film is utter­ly ridicu­lous, but that ele­ment is what has made it a trash-film touch­stone for exploita­tion movie fans.  Whether it is fetishiz­ing the phal­lic nature of Bronson’s mas­sive Wildey hand­gun or deploy­ing ever more absurd lev­els of vio­lence, it goes for 42nd Street grind­house gus­to at every turn.  One gets the sense that direc­tor Michael Winner was hav­ing the time of his life being a bad boy behind the cam­era.  He’s not too atten­tive to detail – there are plen­ty of con­ti­nu­ity errors for those who love to point such things out – but he gives the film his usu­al chilly visu­al gloss and main­tains a pret­ty tight pace.  Basically, he treats the film as a sleazy, self-par­o­dy­ing comic book, rev­el­ing in the shab­by nature of the dia­logue and illog­i­cal plot­ting as he care­less­ly speeds through to the finale.

Better yet, the finale alone makes Death Wish 3 a must-see for cine-trash dis­ci­ples – Fraker calls in motor­cy­cle rid­ing enforce­ments as Chuck breaks out some mis­siles and a machine gun to take them on.  The film goes so far over­board at this point that it trans­forms into the grind­house answer to a Disneyland attrac­tion — Urban Scumbag Shootdown, if you will. In six­teen min­utes, there’s a body count of at least 5 dozen plus sev­er­al explo­sions, a few fire stunts and all oth­er sorts of social­ly unac­cept­able may­hem.  No one would ever call any of this art but it is trash of the first order.