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.