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Death Wish back to product details

The original and best urban action thriller
written by EPetersen June 27, 2004 - 12:44 PM PDT
6 out of 6 members found this review helpful
The late, great actor Charles Bronson had numerous film (and TV) credits to his name, but this is the one most fans remember. It spawned a series of sequels and dozens of similiarly themed action movies.

Death Wish was based on a bestselling novel by Brian Garfield - who hated the screenplay. It was, of course, much different from Garfield's novel. In the novel, the main character's trauma (the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter by vicious street criminals) causes him to go insane. He becomes a psychotic serial killer whose victims of choice are violent criminals.

His "death wish" is to be killed before he kills again, because to him, all the criminals who cross his path are the ones who hurt his family, so he can't stop killing - even though he can't stand killing. The theme of the novel was that violence is violence, whether it's committed by a criminal or an outraged victim, and violence is no answer to society's ills.

But this is a movie review, not a book review, so let's talk about the film - which is pretty damn good in its own right.

New Yorker Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is an architect living the good life with his wife (Hope Lange) and family. A liberal and a pacifist, Paul is a good man who hates violence and believes in rehabilitation rather than excessive punishment for criminals.

Then one day, Paul's world is torn apart forever. On their way home from the market, Paul's wife and daughter are followed by three vicious hoodlums (one is played by a young Jeff Goldblum) who break into their apartment and attack them, beating up the wife and brutally raping the daughter.

Paul and his son-in-law rush to the hospital and find that both their lives have been shattered. Paul's wife dies, but his daughter survives - only to go into catatonic schizophrenia as the result of her trauma and become a vegetable.

With his daughter non-responsive, the police tell Paul that her attackers - his wife's murderers - will most likely never be found and arrested, let alone tried and convicted. Paul begins to question his entire value system. While on a business trip in Arizona, Paul goes to a shooting range with his client and shoots a gun for the first time since returning from the Korean War.

When he gets back to New York, he soon receives a present from his client - a shiny pistol with ammo and accessories. One night, while Paul is walking home, a mugger tries to rob him and receives a rude awakening - Paul shoots the creep with his new gun, killing him.

Shocked (and literally nauseated) at first by his own behavior, Paul begins to feel less like a victim and more at peace with himself. So, he begins stalking the darkest, most dangerous parts of the city, using himself as bait to attract would-be criminals. Dressed in expensive clothes and flashing a wallet filled with cash, it's not long before someone tries to rob Paul again - and ends up dead, gunned down like the last one. And the body count continues.

As Paul makes his nightly rounds, littering the streets of New York with the corpses of criminals, the media makes a hero out of the mysterious vigilante, the crime rate drops dramatically, and the police are embarrassed. Grizzled detective Frank Ochoa (the great Vincent Gardenia) is assigned to the case - a case that the politically-conscious DA wants no part of.

Brian Garfield claimed that the movie, unlike his novel, glorifies vigilantism. I disagree, but the screenplay does have its flaws. How Paul can overcome his personal tragedy and lead a normal, happy life by killing criminals is never really explained. In the novel, Paul slowly loses his sanity. Here, he is totally rational and in control. The script tries to imply that Paul is subconsciously lashing out at his family's attackers when he kills criminals at random, but that just doesn't work because he is so rational about it.

Flaws aside, Death Wish is still a very entertaining and exciting movie. Charles Bronson gives a great performance, despite the clunky screenplay.

Censorship Note: This is NOT the original, uncut version of Death Wish. For this DVD release, Paramount elected to use the censored, R-rated theatrical cut. The rape scene was heavily - and I mean HEAVILY - edited to avoid an X rating. The video transfer is great, but if you want the uncut version, hold on to that uncensored, import VHS dub you bought a few years ago.

- Eric Petersen


(Average 6.18)
49 Votes
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