Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Death Wish Series (1974 -1994)

I’ve never read Brian Garfield’s novel DEATH WISH but everything I’ve heard about it makes it sound a world and a half away from the image of Charles Bronson stalking hellish urban landscapes. Published in 1972, “Death Wish” told the story of Paul Benjamin, a New York CPA, and his downward spiral following his wife’s murder and daughter’s brutalization during a home invasion. Inspiration for the novel came from incidents in Garfield’s own life, the theft of his wife’s purse and his car getting vandalized, leaving him so enraged he was ready to quote, “kill the son of bitch” should he ever get his hands on him, which left Garfield wondering what would happen to a person that fell into that way of thinking and couldn’t pull themselves out of it. Clocking in at a slim two hundred and nineteen pages, Paul doesn’t even get his hands on a firearm until the book is nearly three quarters over, with the bulk of its page count being devoted to detailing our protagonist’s unraveling mental state before he turns to violence as a way to retake the control he’s felt he’s lost. As Zack Handlen noted in own discussion of the book and original film on his much-missed site The Duck Speaks, the “death wish” of the title is Paul’s, his vigilante spree motivated as much by a desire to commit suicide by cop or crook than anything else, really.

With this in mind, I guess we can all understand why Garfield wasn’t too happy with the film series that sprung from his novel. Garfield had sold off the film rights to DEATH WISH with those of another of his books, RELENTLESS, to producers who eventually took the project to United Artists. Early drafts of the script were handled by Wendell Mayes, as Garfield had chosen the write the RELENTLESS adaptation himself. By all signs, Mayes work stuck relatively close to source material, and Sydney Lumet was slotted to direct the film with Jack Lemon and Henry Fonda in the lead roles of vigilante and pursuant cop respectively. However, a chance to direct a certain movie named SERPICO came up and Lumet jumped ship to that project instead. British director Michael Winner was chosen to step in for his experience in directing violent action films like THE MECHANIC and THE STONE KILLER, both of which starred Charles Bronson, who would be slotted into the role of Paul Benjamin, now re-christened Paul Kersey for the final film. The production would hit a few more speed bumps before it finally made its way to the screen though. Budgetary constraints would lead United Artists to drop the project and the original producers were forced to give up the film rights which would eventually find their way into the hands of infamous Italian film giant, Dino ‘When monkey die, everybody cry” DeLaurentis, who would take the project to Paramount Pictures. Paramount would eventually release the movie in 1974.

The original DEATH WISH couldn’t have hit theaters at a more opportunistic time. It was an era where a mixture of economic hardships and high crime rates lead to the general perception that any major city was a borderline demilitarized zone where vicious criminals lurked in every shadow and any system of law was incapable at best and an outright hindrance to justice being done at worst. Furthermore, this was the hey day of the DIRTY HARRY franchise, another film series about a man pushed too far who takes a hardliner approach to violent crime, whose first sequel had come out just the year before. So, with an audience fed up with the world outside their doors and longing for fantasies where the solution was as cathartically straight-forward as “just shoot the son-of-a-bitch,” it comes as no surprise that DEATH WISH was a huge hit.

To give it credit, the original film has some actual merit. There seems to be some genuine attempts at a form of social commentary here and unlike later installments where he would skate by on his tough guy image, Bronson is playing an honest-to-god character in this one. The violence is depicted as horrific and nasty and when set against the seedy, dystopian feeling backdrop of 70’s New York, the result is something that feels more like an apocalyptic horror movie than anything. No wonder then, that John Carpenter cites this as one of the big inspirations for ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

With that said, when I rewatched DEATH WISH for this write up, I noticed an intriguing idea peaking around the edges that the film itself never quite fully commits to. Kersey gets the gun he uses for his vigilante slayings during a trip to Arizona, a gift from a client of his architectural firm. While there, he takes in a Wild West stunt show where an announcer gives this big spiel about men standing up for justice and all that. Later in the film, Kersey gives this big speech about how Americans used to be pioneers, tries to goad one mugger he goes after in a quick draw showdown, and when the police, who want him stopped but can’t help but acknowledge that his actions are having an effect on crime rates, tell him to get out of town after they catch him, Kersey replies with “by sundown?” This suggests a more interesting movie, one that actually dovetails rather nicely with what Garfield was getting at with his novel, of a man who buys into a macho bullshit myth of the old west as a time when Men Were Real Men Who Took Justice Into Their Own Hands in order to cope with what’s happened to him. While casting a noted hard man like Bronson in the role of an average joe (remember, Jack Lemmon was originally up for it) could be seen as a mistake, if looked at from this angle, casting Harmonica and Bernado O’Reilly to play a man who has deluded himself into thinking he’s a modern day gunslinger cleaning up this corrupt town is fitting. However, when we take the next two films in the series, also directed by Winner, and the director’s other movies into account, it becomes apparent this was likely by total accident, a result of a ham-handed attempt to highlight DEATH WISH’s ancestry. Ah well, what could have been.

And yes, that is Jeff Goldblum as one of the goons who attack Kersey’s wife and daughter (credited as “Freak #1”) and along with Goldblum, you can also catch some blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em appearances by Denzel Washington, Olympia Dukakis, Christopher Guest and Sonia Manzano. Yes, Maria from freakin’ SESAME STREET! The whole series contains a murderer’s row of recognizable faces before they were recognizable, including Laurence Fishburne, Alex Winter, Danny Trejo, Mitch Pileggi, Rico Ross, and two, count ‘em, eventual STAR TREK alumni with Marina Sirtis and Tim Russ. Well, okay…Danny Trejo would.

DEATH WISH ended with the clear implication that Kersey’s vigilante rampage was far from done but it would be years before he finally hit the screen again. In the interim, Garfield, so displeased with how he felt the film glorified the vigilante violence the book condemned, wrote his own sequel, DEATH SENTENCE, which ended with Paul Benjamin arrested for his crimes. However, this book would not be the basis for the eventual sequel, though amusingly enough, it would get adapted in the Aughts by the writer-director combo behind the SAW series as a DEATH WISH clone starring Kevin Bacon. (What does Garfield think of that movie, I wonder?) Like I said, the cinematic sequel to DEATH WISH wouldn’t come out until 1982, by which point Dino DeLaurentis had handed the film rights off to the one production company in Hollywood that was more shameless than he was...good old Cannon Films.

While not founded by the duo, Cannon Films rose to prominence when it was bought by Israeli filmmaker (and Roger Corman protégé) Menaham Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus. Taking notes from the master himself, Cannon Film’s made its name by primarily cranking out dozens of cheap exploitation pictures per year that would cash on whatever trends were running through popular culture and film at the time, with the occasional oddball personal project thrown into the mix.  (If you want an in-depth look at the history of the company, I once again heartily recommend the fantastic documentary ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, currently available on Netflix Instant. I’ve watched that thing more times than THE GODFATHER and CITIZEN KANE combined.) Golan was once quoted as saying that if you made an American film for less than five million, you’d have to be an idiot to lose money. Producing sequels to DEATH WISH was their way to add some affordable name recognition and star power to their product. After all, “guy walks around back alleys and shoots people” wasn’t a huge strain on the pocket book. Menaham Golan would produce a grand total of four sequels to DEATH WISH from 1982 to 1994’s DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH through Cannon Films and his successor production company 21st Century Films. Not only would Bronson star in all four of them, he would appear in a number of vehicles that might as well have been DEATH WISH movies, like 10 TO MIDNIGHT. Bronson became one of the big star players at Cannon and story goes that any script sent into their offices was to go into one of two stacks to determine which of the two Chucks, Bronson or Norris, it would be pitched to.

Note that DeLaurentis would later regret letting Cannon get their hands on the rights to DEATH WISH and after an attempt to wrangle them back fell through, produced his own DEATH WISH clone, FIGHTING BACK in 1983.

While the original DEATH WISH was, as I said, an actual movie, the sequels were straight up exploitation fodder. Each sports the same general plot; Paul Kersey taking up arms and wrecking bloody vengeance once more when someone close to him is violated by criminals, who are usually multi-ethnic groups of young people in dire need of a cranky old white guy to put boot-to-ass. (The series’ overriding theme seems to be “Get offa my lawn!” delivered via hot lead.) Think of them as FRIDAY THE 13th movies for The Good Guy With A Gun crowd. The only thing that changes from installment to installment is being set in either New York or Los Angeles, which hinged on whether or not Bronson felt like traveling, it seems.

DEATH WISH II is one of the ones set in Los Angeles, where Paul Kersey lives with his reporter girlfriend (played by Jill Ireland, Bronson’s wife) and his daughter, who was rendered catatonic by the attack in the first movie. While on a family outing, Paul gets his wallet stolen by a gang of hoods, who later break into his house, assault his maid, beat him senseless and kidnap his daughter. When his daughter commits suicide, (in one of the most flat out tasteless scenes I ever witnessed) Kersey breaks out the firearms and sets up a base of operations in the seedier part of town so that he can hunt down the men responsible, while at the same time being tracked down by the police detective who caught him in the first movie.  

If DEATH WISH felt like a horror film that was disguised as an urban crime thriller, then DEATH WISH II is the cinematic equivalent of talking a nice long walk through a flooded sewer. Picture a version of TAXI DRIVER that tells you you’re supposed to be rooting for Travis Bickle to go on his murderous rampage and you’ve got a good idea just how slimy this movie feels. “He’s doing it for you,” trailers would declare, which lets you know where it comes down on the whole “vigilantism, right or wrong?” debate and any attempt at social commentary this go around is drowned out by the cartoonish sleaze and misogyny the film revels in. (For starters, this would be the first installment to feature what would unfortunately become a staple of the series: rape scenes used as a way to work in female nudity for cheap titillation.) It’s in this movie that we also see the first signs of the ludicrousness to come. The action in the first film was grounded, with Bronson using only his gun or a sock full of quarters to fight off his switchblade and revolver carrying attackers. Here, the sixty year old Bronson, now slipping into his screen persona rather than trying to act, is shown being able to hold his own in a fight against much bigger, younger men and getting into protracted shootouts with machine gun wielding goons. It all comes to a head in the film’s thoroughly silly finale, which sees Bronson disguising himself as a doctor to sneak into the hospital where his last target is being held in police custody.

Repugnant as it is, that didn’t stop DEATH WISH II from turning a tidy profit at the box office, which meant that another Cannon-produced sequel was inevitable and so, DEATH WISH 3 would see release in 1985. Yes, a hair over twenty-two hundred words into this write-up and I’m just now getting started discussing the movie that was supposed to be the focus of this post.

DEATH WISH 3 was originally going to be titled DEATH WISH III until a survey conducted by Cannon Films stated that most Americans couldn’t read roman numerals, which I think sets the tone for the whole project right there.  Michael Winner, in need of a big hit after his last two films flopped, would return for his last stint as a director in this series. Bronson was given a one and a half million dollar paycheck, nearly one fifth of the movie’s budget, to come back. The script would be written by Don Jakoby, co-writer of one of my favorite Cannon films, the thoroughly berserk sci-fi epic LIFEFORCE, who would later ask his name be taken off the script after Winner got his hands on it. Being one of the odd number DEATH WISH films, this one is set in New York, though don’t expect to see much footage of the Big Apple outside of the film’s opening credits, as the majority of DEATH WISH 3 would be shot in London (Lambeth and Brixton, specifically) as a way to reduce production costs. British locals used as extras would later be dubbed in by U.S. Air Force personnel stationed at a local military base.

An urgent message from an old Korean War buddy is what brings Kersey, now going by the name Kimball, back to New York, who finds his friend savagely beaten to death when he arrives at the Brooklyn housing project where he lives. The police, useless as always in movies like this, barge in at that exact moment and arrest Kersey. While in lock-up, Kersey is recognized by a perpetually ticked off police captain (Ed Lauter) whose views on crime reduction are somewhere in the neighborhood of Judge Dredd’s. (At one point he informs his men to not just bring him arrests, but to put a couple bodies in the morgue. “Theirs or yours. Your choice.”) Of course, little inconvenient things like due process and civil rights prevent Shriker from going all “let God sort-‘em out” on the criminal element like he wants to, so Paul Kersey dropping into his lap presents something of an opportunity. Help him exterminate the street gang that’s primarily responsible for the high crime rate in his dead friend’s neighborhood, he tells Kersey, and he'll forget about those pesky vigilante murders. Kersey is initially reluctant to go along with it but changes his tune once he’s put into a holding cell with the gang’s psychopathic leader, Fraker.

Fraker. Oh lordy, lordy, Fraker. Fraker, Fraker, Fraker. For both a decade and company whose cinematic output delivered a wondrous bounty of ridiculous looking villains, Fraker still manages to stand out. THE EXETERMINATOR 2, Cannon’s off-brand DEATH-WISH-with-a-flamethrower, had Mario Van Peebles as an Anti-Christ wannabe gang leader who dressed up like a FIST OF THE NORTH STAR villain and even he didn’t come off as goofy. For starters, he’s played by Gavan O’Herlihy, who you might remember as Richie’s older brother from HAPPY DAYS who vanished without a mention after the first season. Not exactly my first choice for “menacing street gang leader” and it’s not helped by O’Herlihy’s performance and general screen presence, which can be summed up as, as Tim and Chad put it better than I ever could, a poor man’s Jake Busey. By the way, my dad was convinced Fraker was played by Clancy Brown and how awesome would that have been? That said, I don’t know if the Kurgan could have come off much better had he been saddled with the same ridiculous reverse-mohawk haircut as O’Herlihy is, or the stripe of red paint he’s got running down the center of his head because I guess the costume designer took a long look at his ‘do and said, “Hmmmm, nope…not stupid enough.” And as we’ll see, Fraker’s whole gang shares his rather egregious fashion sense, looking less like any actual street gang that’s ever existed and more like they escaped from some post apocalyptic version of Cannon’s BREAKIN’ series. The Warriors would kick these guy’s asses for a warm up.

On the way out of the police station, Kersey meets up with the public defender played by Deborah Raffin who is baffled that “Mr. Kimball” refuses to press charges against the police for their mistreatment of him. And, well, it’s no prize to you if you guessed that this wholesome looking young lady is going to serve as Kersey’s perfunctory love interest for this go round, the movie hoping that you won’t notice that Bronson’s old enough to be Raffin’s father. Also, no prize to you if you guessed that her ultimate fate is going to be to die at Fraker’s hands, thereby kicking off Kersey’s climatic mass murder spree. The mortality rate of Paul Kersey’s girlfriends has got to be somewhere between Matt Murdock’s and Golgo 13’s. But we’ll get to that later, because it’s back to his dead friend’s neighborhood Kersey goes and the place is such a nightmare that Paul’s not there for five minutes before he has to beat down some thugs for attacking a woman.

If DEATH WISH paid lip service to the idea that the film was an urban western, DEATH WISH 3 goes all in, as this neighborhood is unquestionably the 1985 equivalent of your standard lawless Western town, with the painted savages having the run of the place and the good citizens cowering in fear, waiting for some wandering stranger with a knack for violence to unite behind. Chief among them are Bennett (Martin Balsam); the apartment building’s land lord, a friend of Bronson’s dead buddy, and yet another war veteran. Others will include an elderly Jewish couple and both a young Hispanic couple (Joseph Gonzalez and Marina Sirtis) and black teenager who will be serving as the film’s token “good” minorities so that it can say it’s not being incendiary while still feeding into middle age white guy fantasies about blowing away “those punks that ruined the neighborhood.”

With the set up out of the way and dramatis personae introduced, Kersey moves into his dead buddy’s apartment and proceeds to declare war on any 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS escapee he sees. He booby traps his apartment, takes time out from dinner with that lovely Jewish couple to cold bloodedly gun down two thugs that try to break into his car, and baits a purse snatcher called “The Giggler” into stealing from him so he can blow him away with a .475 magnum handgun. With “The Giggler’s” death (“THEY KILLED THE GIGGLER!” “That wasn’t right. He shouldn’t have done that.” Oh eat your heart out, John Sayles.) Fraker decides its time to retaliate. His goons abduct and rape Mrs. Rodriguez, who later dies from her injuries. He has another goon, simply named the “Puerto Rican,” get ripped on cocaine and sends him to murder Kersey, only for Paul to pitch him head first off of a roof. His gang murders an old woman, bombs Bennett’s shop and puts the old man in the hospital but most importantly, kills Deborah Raffin’s character while she’s in the middle of a romantic evening with Paul. Come on, we knew this lady was doomed the moment she appeared on screen and once she and Kersey start sleeping together, I went ahead and timed how long it was until she met her fiery end, her car sent careening into another that, judging by the resulting explosion, must have been carrying a trunk load of nitroglycerin and sem-tex.

Two minutes and thirty five seconds, if you’re curious.

Well, that’s the official signal that it’s clobberin’ time. Shriker places Kersey in police custody but he escapes and makes it back to his friend’s apartment, where he breaks out a little memento his friend brought back from WWII - a friggin’ .30 cal. machine gun! –and proceeds to go all Urban Combat John Matrix on Fraker’s gang. The other law abiding citizens, rather than getting as far away from these two maniacs waging bloody warfare in the streets like any sane human being, break out weapons of their own and join in. Not to be outdone, Fraker calls in some back up from a biker gang and then even Shriker and the police decide “Hell, when in Rome.” The result is a good twenty plus minutes of glorious nonsense as everybody just starts shooting everybody else. It’s clear this is where the film’s budget went as it pulls out all the stops in terms of stunts and pyrotechnics. With apologies to Joe Bob Briggs, we’ve got kung fu, pistol fu, machine gun fu, grenade fu, Molotov cocktail fu, raging out of control fire fu, board with a pointy thing in it fu, chain fu, roving bands of armed old people fu, helicopter fu, motorcycle fu, crashing police car fu, defenestration fu, old lady with a broom fu, old lady with a double barrel shotgun fu and as Fraker discovers to his chagrin, Paul-Kersey-has-a-rocket-launcher-he-saved-for-a-special-occasion fu. With their leader reduced to a pink mist, Fraker’s gang decides to take their ball and go home. (I mean, if you’re just going to get mean about it, Mr. Kersey.) His job done, Kersey heads off into the sunset, but not before paying his respects to Shriker, the scene of them staring into each others eyes inexplicably set to same romantic music as the scenes between Bronson and Deborah Raffin because this movie needed to go out on one more “Oh what the hell?” moment. The film then ends in the most perfect way that it could: a lingering shot on burning real estate set to sounds of screeching police sirens.

My God, this movie. Much like the RAMBO series, DEATH WISH is another Reagan-era example of taking a gritty, somber story and turning completely into ridiculous right wing fantasia. Sure, DEATH WISH I & II had their share of reactionary politics, but they’re downright socialist compared to 3, which runs around waving a giant banner that has “VIGILANTISM RULES” written on it in big, bright letters. Seriously, this isn’t a movie that supports the second amendment so much as it writes racy love letters to it. At one point in the film, the police, being the obstacle to Real Justice as they are, force the Jewish couple to hand over a pistol they used to scare off a couple gang members. “But it’s our protection!” the wife shouts at them before ranting that the police should be going after the real criminals all while sad music plays. Very next scene, the gang members are in the house attacking them and telling them that they’ll come back in any time they want, as if taking the gun away removed some sort of mystical protection field. When Kersey kills The Giggler in a way that can’t be seen as anything but premeditated murder, the reaction from onlookers isn’t horror but for the entire block to start applauding him for blowing a gaping hole in that dude’s chest. Hell, the scene where Kersey first gets to show off his fancy new hand cannon is practically an advertisement for it and you almost expect him to turn to the screen and go “That .44 Magnum Dirty Harry carries around? It’s for wimps.” Not surprisingly, the gun manufacturer who made it apparently saw a huge upswing in sales after this movie came out.

Of course, why shouldn’t they applaud criminals dying? According to DEATH WISH 3, criminals aren’t human beings who turned to crime mostly as the result of societal and economic turmoil. Nope, they’re zombies, orcs, and xenomorphs; avatars of evil that indiscriminately commit any crime against any one and probably eat orphan babies and disabled kittens for lunch. Therefore they deserve to be massacred en masse and with extreme prejudice. I mean, for god’s sake, they dress weird and are into things that nostalgic for ‘50’s values types don’t understand, the monsters! Both Shriker and Kersey compare them to roaches that need to be exterminated and even the supposedly bleeding heart defense attorney gives an impassioned speech over chicken dinner on how sick she is of defending creeps in court and how good people need to rise up just in case you were worried the movie might seriously consider an opposing viewpoint. I certainly hope no one’s gone to jail as a result of that somewhat unethical attitude she has there.

It would all be so very offensive and morally repugnant if not for the fact that this movie takes these notions to such extremes that it ends up turning into the whole thing into a damn cartoon. Winner apparently wished to forego the grittier tone of the first two movies for something, in his words, "more gung ho" and the result is a movie that gets so bizarre and over-the-top that at times I was convinced that what I seeing wasn't an actual DEATH WISH sequel but some thoroughly lunatic Italian knock-off of DEATH WISH that somehow lucked out and become part of the series proper. C'mon, look at this movie and tell me you couldn't see this starring Franco Nero and Enzo G. Castellari's name on the credits. None of the characters react to things in ways that any actual human being reacts (like I said, when Kersey breaks out the .30 cal, the reaction from Rodriguez is to smile and not to run screaming bloody murder in the other direction) and on the whole the movie never feels like it takes place anywhere resembling planet Earth, so it's hard to get too bent out of shape over it. DEATH WISH 3 takes the tropes of vigilante movies as close to parody as one can get without tripping over into the real thing. It's exactly the kind of movie that Paul Verhoeven would send up with ROBOCOP and between you and me, ROBOCOP almost feels restrained by comparison. The jaw dropping, cackle inducing absurdity of it all is not lessened by repeat viewings.

And seriously, what was up with the random gang member that was carrying a plunger around?

Something that does spoil the fun a bit is yet again, we have multiple examples of rape being treated as a way to work in nudity. Director Michael Winner had a rather unsavory reputation for being a misogynistic sleaze and as reported in ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, the general impression people had of him is that of a guy who got into filmmaking so he could abuse people. DEATH WISH 3 would be the second time with Winner that poor Marina Sirtis would have to go through with this. During the making of Winner's previous movie, the smut-a-thon THE WICKED LADY, Winner apparently just decided out of the blue to have a scene where Sirtis gets stripped naked and whipped for no real reason. Here she was treated worse, as not only was she stripped naked yet again but the temperatures on set were incredibly cold and when someone tried to give her a coat so she wouldn't freeze to death, Winner had them thrown out. I imagine these two movies weren't far from Sirtis's mind when she gave fans of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION an emotional thank you for making the show such a hit, since it meant she wouldn't have to put up with crap like this anymore. Unfortunately, the second example, of a nameless black woman being dragged out of building during the final shootout is even skeevier because that woman would be one Sandy Grizzle, who was Winner's girlfriend at the time and would later reveal that Winner abused her regularly.  Bleech, is about all I can say to that.

Winner's career would enter a major decline after DEATH WISH 3 and Bronson was reportedly so displeased with the resulting film he refused to work with him ever again. But, hey, DEATH WISH 3 turned a profit and I'm assuming that Bronson would need to make a boat payment at some point so further, considerably cheaper DEATH WISH sequels were inevitable. DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN would hit cinemas in 1987 and in the director's chair for this go around would be J. Lee Thompson, director of THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, the original CAPE FEAR, both the strongest and weakest of the PLANET OF THE APES sequels, and WHITE BUFFALO, the best mashup of JAWS knock-off and "dying of the Wild West" movie you're likely to see. Bronson seemed to enjoy working with Thompson, as the two collaborated several times, and both gained a second wind for their career working with Cannon Films. THE CRACKDOWN would essentially be a reworking of DEATH WISH II into something considerably less heinous, as Kersey is back in L.A. living with yet another crusading reporter girlfriend and her daughter. When Kersey tells his girlfriend that he's come to regard her daughter like she was his own child, you know she's doomed, and it's isn't much longer than it took for Deborah Raffin to bite it before she's dead from a drug overdose. With backing from a mysterious billionaire, Kersey pulls a page from Harmonica's grandpappy Sanjuro and plays the two biggest drug cartels against each other before cleaning up what's left, only to discover that he's been duped into clearing out the competition for the actual drug operation behind his girlfriend's daughter's death. The result is arguably the best made of the four DEATH WISH sequels. Thompson has a slick if un-intrusive directorial style and manages to pull off some surprisingly good scenes, including an opening stalking through a parking garage that could have been pulled from a giallo and the particularly well-staged shoot out at a roller rink which closes the movie out. It never quite reach the heights of crowd pleasing ludicrousness that its predecessor hit, for better or worse, and it's obvious that the film was straining against its lower budget, a result of the financial difficulties Cannon Films was suffering at the time. Still, if you're in the mood for a decent b-movie actioner clearly Of Its Time, you could do worse. If nothing else, it is the only franchise installment that inspired a Bollywood musical knock-off.

Wish I could be quite as charitable to the last movie in the series, DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH, though DEATH WISH V: SO VERY TIRED might have been a more fitting title for it. By this point, as I mentioned, Cannon Films had closed shop and Menaham Golan independently financed the film through his short lived 21st Century Films. It was released in 1994, seven years after THE CRACKDOWN, and the script used was apparently one that was rejected for Part 4. It's exactly the kind of cheap cash-in sequels released years after the franchise's heyday you'd expect it to be, a incredibly dull affair that finds Bronson, now in his mid seventies, avenging Yet Another Dead Girlfriend slain by Irish mobsters. Bringing things back around to my earlier FRIDAY THE 13TH comparison, if Kersey was an average joe in DEATH WISH I, and II through THE CRACKDOWN chartered his transformation into another machine gun toting 80's action hero (he even has a massive arsenal hidden away in a special compartment like Schwarzenegger in COMMANDO), then THE FACE OF DEATH presents him as something of an aging, gun toting Jason Voorhees, stalking his victims and murdering them in creative ways. The scaled back body count and excessively gruesome demise of Kersey's targets (one man has his head set on fire, another thrown into a wood chipper, and the central villain takes a swim in a chemical vat) just adds to the feeling that you're watching an erstatz slasher film. Amazingly enough, THE FACE OF DEATH was released in theaters, where it died quickly after only grossing half a million dollars. (Ouch) It would be the last theatrically released film that Bronson would appear in, which I have to say is a rather sad little ending note for the career of such an iconic actor.

Good grief, what I had originally intended to just be a post about DEATH WISH 3 ballooned over a few weeks into a nearly six thousand word (!!) rambling about the series entire. Sorry for making you read all of that, people. Still, I guess this is a series where it's impossible to talk about one installment without bringing in the others. If nothing else, it's interesting to chart the progression and transformation from the source material to the entire film series and how it changes with and reflects the times it existed in. I mentioned RAMBO before and as I'm writing this closing paragraph, it finally clicked how similar the two franchises are, starting as novels that were firmly against the thing later film installments glorified and both having fourth movies that were better than they really had any right to be. And of course, that got me thinking about what it would have been like if other gritty, somber films had become 80's action franchises. In some alternate reality somewhere did 80's audiences sit in a theater and get to see Travis Bickle machine gunning cartel members in TAXI DRIVER 4: CAB FARE OF DEATH. One can only hope.

Yeah, I think I'll take that as a sign this has gone on long enough and end this here.

A Little Something Extra.
Did you know that DEATH WISH 3 inspired a computer game? Yep, released on the Commodore 64  and ZX Spectrum. From the footage I've found on-line it seems that you play as a green jump suited Paul Kersey as he wanders around lost among various city streets, blowing away criminals while civilians wonder around like nothing is happening. Pretty faithful adaptation, all things considered. 

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