The "Death Wish" Series: Charles Bronson at His Best!
Charles Bronson: American Bad-Ass!
The late, great Charles Bronson (1921-2003) enjoyed a long and fruitful acting career that spanned nearly five decades. Born in rural Pennsylvania, Bronson moved to Hollywood in the early '50s after serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. His military background, weathered face and menacing voice got him steady work in "tough guy" roles, playing cops, brawlers, cowboys, crooks, and soldiers in TV shows like The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, and Have Gun, Will Travel, as well as films like The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, and Once Upon A Time in the West.
Bronson's IMDb page lists 160 acting credits over the course of 45 years, but it's likely that he will be best remembered for his iconic role in the Death Wish film series as Paul Kersey - the mild mannered New York City architect who becomes a gun toting vigilante when his family is victimized by street criminals. Based on a 1972 novel by Brian Garfield, Death Wish was a controversial film in its day. Movie critics denounced its apparent endorsement of vigilante style justice, but audiences - especially those living in the crime-ravaged inner cities of the early 1970s - saw Kersey's revenge spree as wish fulfillment and flocked to the film, making it into a box office hit. After years of playing mostly supporting roles, Death Wish unexpectedly turned Bronson into a bankable "leading man" at the age of 53. For the next 20 years, Bronson would return to the role of Paul Kersey four more times while also starring in a number of other successful action films (many co-starring his then-wife, Jill Ireland), cementing his status as an Elder Statesman of the shoot'em-up genre.
"Death Wish" (1974)
The sequels to Death Wish embraced the "action movie" cliches of the '80s, but Michael Winner's original film is more of a gritty drama, filmed on location in a New York City that was a lot darker, dirtier and scarier than it is today. When Paul Kersey's wife (Hope Lange) is murdered and his daughter is brutalized in their apartment by a gang of muggers, the pacifist architect hopes that the system will take care of the gang responsible. However, when the punks are released on a technicality, Paul renounces his peaceful ways and begins stalking the streets at night with a pistol, looking for revenge. Kersey is pursued throughout the film by Lieutenant Ochoa of the NYPD (Vincent Gardenia) who sympathizes with Paul's plight ... and may even support what he's doing.
Author Brian Garfield apparently didn't approve of the changes that the film made to his original novel, which portrayed the Kersey character as a tragic figure to be pitied, not as a hero to be cheered for. The first film is also notable for the early screen appearances by several now-famous names, like Jeff Goldblum as one of Lange's attackers ("We want money, mother! Now get it!"), a young Denzel Washington as a mugger shot by Kersey, and Christopher ("This Is Spinal Tap") Guest as an NYPD patrolman.
"Death Wish II" (1982)
"BRONSON'S LOOSE AGAIN" screamed the posters, eight years after the original "DW." Produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, whose Cannon Films studio would become Bronson's home for much of the next decade, Death Wish II finds Kersey settled in Los Angeles after accepting an offer from the NYPD (at the end of the previous film) to quietly get out of town. Unfortunately Paul soon finds out that the crime in L.A. is just as bad as it had been in New York. In keeping with Golan/Globus' B-Movie pedigree, Death Wish II cranked up the sleaze factor in a big way.
The sequel is way more mean-spirited and exploitative than its predecessor, as Kersey's housekeeper is brutally raped (in disturbing detail) by a gang of thugs (led by a young Lawrence Fishburne!) and his daughter is killed. The grief-stricken Kersey soon sets up shop in a downtown flophouse hotel and resumes his nocturnal gun-toting wanderings. The headlines about a vigilante in L.A. eventually prompt Vincent Gardenia's Lieutenant Ochoa to fly out to the City of Angels in an attempt to stop history from repeating itself. Best line: Bronson asks a punk if he believes in Jesus, and when he replies "Yes," Bronson says "Well, you're going to meet him (BANG)!"
Critics hated Death Wish II, of course, claiming that it was little more than a retread of the first movie with a bigger mean streak... but it made money and assured that Bronson would return for a third go-round.
"Death Wish 3" (1985)
"Wildey's heeere!" ... 1985's Death Wish 3 is either the most ridiculous action film ever made, or the most awesome, depending on who you talk to. By this point Paul Kersey had no family members left for the screenwriters to kill off, so they sent him back home to New York to visit an old Army buddy, "Charley." Unfortunately Paul arrives at his friend's home just in time for Charley to die in his arms - the latest victim of a sadistic street gang that is holding the entire neighborhood in a grip of terror. Naturally, Paul will not put up with such shenanigans -- instead, he moves into his pal's now-vacant apartment and does what he does best! Paul is assisted in his anti-gang campaign by several of the building's tenants and the off-the-record approval of the local NYPD precinct captain (Ed Lauter) who gives Kersey carte blanche to get rid of as many of the punks as he can.
The pressure continues to build until the film's last quarter, when things explode into an all-out battle between Kersey and the tenants, the punks, and the police, all waging open warfare in the streets with one another in an orgy of gunplay and explosions that quickly goes over the top into the utterly cartoonish. Bronson is truly a sight to behold as he blasts away with a huge belt-fed machine gun from a fire escape into a crowd of gang bangers! Death Wish 3 has developed a cult following over the years due to its ridiculous amounts of wall-to-wall, unrealistic violence (which admittedly borders on the comedic), and for turning Bronson (who was 64 at the time) from a lone wolf with a single gun into a Rambo for the senior-citizen set.
Sharp eyed viewers will recognize a pre-"Bill and Ted" Alex Winter as one of the many gang members, and Marina Sirtis, later of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" as one of the building tenants. "DW3" was the last film in the series to be directed by Michael Winner, who had helmed all three installments thus far. Legend has it that a falling out with Bronson was the reason Winner wasn't invited back for any further sequels.
"Death Wish 4: The Crackdown" (1987)
When Bronson returned two years later for the ripped-from-the-headlines Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, things were toned down to something resembling reality. Back in L.A. again, Paul Kersey has settled down with yet another new girlfriend (Kay Lenz). When Lenz's teenage daughter dies of a crack cocaine overdose, Paul feels he should do something to stop the flow of this dangerous new substance. Fortunately, a mysterious benefactor (John P. Ryan) steps in to sponsor Paul's one-man "War on Drugs." Paul hits the streets and quickly ignites a gang war between L.A.'s two major drug trafficking organizations, getting most of them to kill each other off, before he learns that his "patron" may not be as benevolent as he first seemed.
Cannon Films was in severe financial trouble in 1987 due to the massive box office failures of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and Masters of the Universe, so DW4 received little more than a token theatrical run before finding a receptive audience on cable TV and video. I was one of the few who managed to catch this installment during its theatrical run back in '87 and it remains a sentimental favorite. The climactic showdown between Bronson and Ryan in a smoke-filled roller rink and video arcade is so '80s that it hurts! They really don't make action flicks like this anymore.
"Death Wish V: The Face of Death" (1994)
Twenty years after the original Death Wish and seven years after the last sequel, Bronson returned to the role of Paul Kersey (at the age of 73!!) one final time in 1994's Death Wish V: The Face of Death, which was released through former Cannon Films producer Menahem Golan's newly founded 21st Century studio. Thanks to the Witness Protection Program, Kersey's back in New York and he's found love yet again with fashion designer Olivia Regent (Lesley Anne-Down). One has to wonder why Kersey continues to enter into romantic relationships, since it never turns out well for his significant others, but I guess then there'd be no movie. Olivia's ex husband, Tommy O'Shea (Michael Parks) happens to be a big wig in the local Irish mob, and he isn't crazy about another man horning in on "his" territory. You can pretty much write the rest yourself. Olivia hangs around just long enough to get disfigured and murdered by O'Shea's gang, who then kidnap her teenage daughter for good measure. Who ya gonna call? Paul Kersey!
Shot in Canada on an even lower budget than usual, Death Wish V occasionally resembles a made-for-TV movie, but the action scenes are as brutal as ever and Bronson still manages to look bad-ass despite his advanced age. I hope I can be that cool when I'm 73. Who am I kidding? I'm not even that cool now. Bronson's relationship with Menahem Golan deteriorated during the filming of DW5, and when it was finished, he declared that he was done doing Death Wish movies. When The Face of Death was met with bad reviews and minimal box office returns, Golan announced a plan to continue the series anyway, without Bronson. Death Wish 6: The New Vigilante would have starred a new leading man, but mercifully 21st Century Studios went bankrupt and closed up shop before anything could come of the idea.
Death Wish V was Charles Bronson's final theatrically-released film. Afterwards he appeared in the 1995 TV movie Family of Cops as Police Commissioner Paul Fein, and reprised the role in two sequels. After filming Under Suspicion: Family of Cops III in 1998 he announced his retirement from acting at the age of 77.
Sadly, Bronson did not have much time to enjoy his well deserved retirement. He began suffering from the effects of Alzheimer's disease and passed away from pneumonia on August 30, 2003 at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He was 81 years old.
Charles Bronson is remembered with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and his legacy lives on in the hearts of action film fans around the globe. It's a shame that he didn't live long enough to make a cameo appearance in one of Sylvester Stallone's all-star Expendables lineups. I could just imagine Charles shaking hands with Sly, Arnie, Chuck and the rest, and saying, "I taught you punks everything you know!"
© 2014 Keith Abt