The "Death Wish" Series: Charles Bronson at His Best!

Charles Bronson: American Bad-Ass!

"Death Wish" Theatrical poster (1974)
"Death Wish" Theatrical poster (1974) | Source

The late, great Charles Bronson (1921-2003) enjoyed a long and fruitful acting career that spanned nearly five decades. Born in rural Pennsylvania, the actor moved to Hollywood in the early 1950s after serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. His military background, as well as his leathered face and menacing voice, got him steady work in "tough guy" roles, playing cops, brawlers, cowboys, crooks, and soldiers in episodes of The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, and Have Gun, Will Travel, as well as classic war and Western 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 always be best remembered for his iconic role in the Death Wish film series as Paul Kersey - a mild mannered New York City architect who became a gun toting vigilante after his family was victimized by street criminals. Based on a 1972 novel by Brian Garfield, Death Wish was a controversial film in its day. Movie critics called it "barbaric" and 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)

Original "Death Wish" (1974) Movie Poster
Original "Death Wish" (1974) Movie Poster | Source

While the Death Wish sequels embraced the "action movie" cliches of the '80s, 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. When the punks are released on a technicality, however, Paul renounces his peaceful ways and begins stalking the night time streets with a pistol, looking for revenge. Kersey is pursued throughout the film by the veteran 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-notable 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)

"Death Wish II" Poster
"Death Wish II" Poster | Source

"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.

This 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)

"Death Wish 3" Poster
"Death Wish 3" Poster | Source

"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,so he moves into the now-vacant apartment and returns to doin' what he does best - blowing away scum bags! 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 a pre-"Star Trek: The Next Generation" Marina Sirtis appears 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)

"Death Wish 4: The Crackdown" Poster
"Death Wish 4: The Crackdown" Poster | Source

There was really no way to top the events of "3," so 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), but when her 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.

Due to the massive box office failures of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and Masters of the Universe in the Summer of '87, Cannon Films was in severe financial trouble by the time DW4 was released later that year, so it received little more than a token theatrical run before eventually finding a receptive audience on cable and home video. I was one of the few who managed to catch this installment in a theater back in '87 and it remains a sentimental favorite. The climactic showdown between Bronson and Ryan in a smoke-filled roller rink/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)

"Death Wish V: The Face of Death" poster
"Death Wish V: The Face of Death" poster | Source

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 who keeps a firm hand on the garment business, 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 for the audience to like her before she's disfigured and eventually 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 apparently deteriorated during the filming of DW5 and when it was finished, he declared that he was done doing Death Wish movies. The Face of Death suffered from bad reviews and minimal box office returns, but Golan planned to continue the series anyway, even without Bronson. 21st Century announced that Death Wish 6: The New Vigilante would star a new leading man, but mercifully the studio went bankrupt and closed up shop before anything could come of the idea.

The Legacy...

Charles Bronson in 1987
Charles Bronson in 1987 | Source

Death Wish V: The Face of Death 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!"


Which "Death Wish" flick is your fave?

  • "Death Wish" (1974)
  • "Death Wish II" (1982)
  • "Death Wish 3" (1985)
  • "Death Wish 4: The Crackdown" (1987)
  • "Death Wish V: The Face of Death" (1994)
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Comments 13 comments

Georgie Lowery profile image

Georgie Lowery 2 years ago from Slaton, Texas USA

I really liked the Death Wish movies and Bronson. I wish they made action heroes like this guy these days!

Great Hub! :)

FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 2 years ago from The Garden State Author

Thanx Georgie.

Jodah profile image

Jodah 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

Charles Bronson was a good tough guy actor and I enjoyed his movies particularly "Kid Galahad starring Elvis Presley as a boxer", "The Great Escape" and "The Dirty Dozen", but the "Death Wish" movies were notable as the first of the vigilanty type movies and the level of violence. Good, interesting hub. Voted up.

FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 2 years ago from The Garden State Author

Bronson was definitely badass. Thanx Jodah.

TCaro profile image

TCaro 2 years ago

At one time, there was ALWAYS at least one Bronson movie airing on (UHF) TV. Where has the time gone?

FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 2 years ago from The Garden State Author

Yep, they were Saturday-afternoon staples on independent TV stations back then....good times!!!

cmoneyspinner1tf profile image

cmoneyspinner1tf 2 years ago from Austin, Texas

When I was young (about 8 to 10 years old), there was an article in the Miami Herald (Miami, FL) about this actor who had gone over to Europe to make a name for himself and that he was now returning to United States to continue his acting career. The article was about Charles Bronson. Sure a lot of people remember him for the Death Wish movies. But for me, my sentimental memory is a movie where he wasn't even the lead character. He was “Bernardo” in “The Magnificent Seven”. All the guys in that movie were memorable. The movie soundtrack? One of a kind!!

FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 2 years ago from The Garden State Author

Yep, Charles had already had quite an impressive career even before the role of Paul Kersey.

Au fait profile image

Au fait 2 years ago from North Texas

I saw the very first Death Wish. Borrowed it from the library several years after it debuted. Good movie. I don't think the lead male character was more barbaric than his wife's and daughter's attackers. Seem to recall he shot them clean, no rape before hand.

FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 2 years ago from The Garden State Author

Yep, they had it comin' for sure.

FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 21 months ago from The Garden State Author


Barry 19 months ago

I am a Charles Bronson Fan. I loved his movies, he was the movie star I crew up with . I was a 18 and now 58 so Charles Bronson was the man in my much younger years. He had such screen presence I was always clued to watching him. A well missed star and icon. Thank you for such entertainment.

FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 19 months ago from The Garden State Author

Thanks for stopping by, Barry...hope you liked this trip down memory lane.

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    Keith Abt (FatFreddysCat)505 Followers
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    I've been a film buff since childhood, and I love writing about and reviewing my favorites.

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