Monday, 11 October 2010

Death Wish 3 (1985)

This is the last thing a "creep" ever sees.

Even though I'm a huge liberal softie, I really enjoy vigilante films. It's so cathartic to see some poor guy get the better of a broken judicial system by delivering justice to criminal scumbags one .45 slug at a time. They appeal to the worst in all of us by insinuating that a reduction in the crime rate is simply a matter of blowing away as many criminals as possible. It's a tempting fantasy but it's still a fantasy, so I like my vigilante films as shamelessly exploitative and reactionary as possible. If you're going to indulge in this kind of thing then you might as well go for broke. It's not surprising then, that Death Wish 3 is my favourite in the Death Wish saga and possibly my favourite vigilante film of all time.

The looong opening credits scene see Kersey on a bus back to New York. He is visiting an old war buddy after his stay in Los Angeles in Death Wish 2 (Kersey alternates between these two cities for the entire series). Although the end of Death Wish insinuated that Kersey's rampage has inspired the citizens to take up arms against the criminals, it doesn't seem to have some much good for his friend's neighbourhood. It looks more like the set of The Warriors, with face-painted gangs freely roaming the streets, stabbing and looting as they please. In fact by the time Kersey arrives at his friend's apartment he has already been robbed and beaten to death, using his final breath to ask Kersey to "take care of my stuff while I'm gone." Kersey is promptly arrested for the murder by the local police chief (Ed Lauter), who is adverserial at first but eventually gives Kersey free reign to take out as many "creeps" as he can. Kersey is happy to oblige.

In the first couple of films, "creep" was just a catch-all term Paul Kersey used to describe the various street punks he gunned down, but in this film everyone talks about "creeps" like they're a different species. You'd think someone would throw in a "scumbags" or "assholes" or even a "motherfuckers" now and then, but no, apparently the correct nomenclature for these giggling street punks is "creeps". They come in a variety of types and ethniticies, but the alpha male is a skinny white guy named Manny Fraker. This guy does not look intimidating at all, in fact he looks like a huge dork with his reverse mohawk and a stripe painted on his head. They have to make his second-in-command Bill S. Preston Esquire just so he looks tougher by comparison.

What I love about this film is that everything is blunt, nothing is subtle. Every political message is italicised and double-underlined. It's not enough that the kindly old couple that make friends with Kersey are Jewish, they have to be Super-Jewish, with menoras and yamulkas framed conspicuously in every single shot. It's not enough that a Police Captain violates Kersey's constitutional rights, they have to include a public defender who shouts "you're violating his constitutional rights!" My favourite piece of right-wing hysteria is when some uniformed police officers, in their one and only attempt at fighting crime, barge into the apartment of an elderly couple and confiscate their handgun. "It's for our protection!" they protest in futility. Sure enough in the very next scene some laughing gang members climb into their apartment and, just in case that were too subtle for you, proclaim that they're going to come and go whenever they want.

As if it weren't already enough of a cartoon, Kersey starts setting up Road Runner style traps in the windows of the apartment building in order to foil burglars. He and the old couple all have a good giggle when they hear a scream coming from the next room, only to find two front teeth embedded in a spring-loaded board. The means that the creep was looking up with mouth agape when the trap went off (maybe he saw a UFO?) or that he had some serious buck teeth. Probably my favourite trap comes later in the film, where a burglar triggers a spring-loaded knife that punctures his skull and sends the lobotomised creep tumbling backwards down a flight of stairs. It's like Home Alone times ten.

Everybody knows that being a pretty young woman in a Death Wish film is an invitation to be raped and murdered. One woman (Deanna Troi from Star Trek: TNG!) appears to get off lightly, with just a rape and a broken arm, but when Kersey takes her husband to the hospital they discover that she died from "complications". Your fate is doubly sealed if you're unlucky enough to be Kersey's love interest, and in this case it's a pretty, blonde public defender, who looks young enough to be his granddaughter. Sure enough their awkward relationship is brought to an abrupt end when Frakes and his men corner her in her car, punch her in the face and then push her car down the hill. It rolls into an intersection, gets into a minor fender bender, and then, in true Cannon style, explodes into a huge fireball. Kersey gives the burning car a blank stare and then turns and walks away, not even checking to see if she's dead. I guess he's used to it by now.

Things are starting to get out of hand, but luckily Kersey's friend "Wildey" is coming to fix everything. This friend turns out to be a .475 Wildey Magnum, and as Kersey's friends gather around he explains it's technical specifications in hushed, reverent tones. He makes sure to mention that it's more powerful than the .44 Magnum (fuck you Eastwood), delivering 0.035 more inches of justice with every shot. Later that evening he tests it out on a "creep" called the Giggler, who he baits with a camera bag, swinging it conspicuously over his shoulder by the slenderest of straps. After the Giggler takes the bait and Kersey shoots him in cold blood, the residents of the adjacent apartment building lean out of their windows and cheer him on. Fraker is less impressed. "They killed the Giggler, man! They had no right to do that! None!"

The creepy fetishisation of firepower doesn't stop there. The grand finale erupts into an all-out war between Team Kersey (median age: 65) and the creeps (median age: 20), which sees Bronson scouring the streets with his trusty magnum, a belt-fed Browning machine gun, and even a bazooka. The creeps respond by calling in their biker pals, who come armed with hand grenades and fire bombs. All of this proves inconsequential to Kersey, who crouches out in the open, impervious to gunfire, as Wildey sends platoons of stuntmen tumbling down fire escapes and off the sides of buildings. Bronson even teams up with the crooked police chief, the two of them triumphantly charging down the street and taking out "creeps" like cardboard targets at a shooting range. Even regular citizens get in on the act, turning the aftermath of a bloody battle with bikers into an impromptu street party, children cheering and dancing around the dead bodies. Damn, I love this film.

To be honest I had no idea that this one was directed by Michael Winner, the same guy as the first two films. Death Wishes 1 and 2 were by no means subtle, but they had a a certain sense of realism and an earnestness to their right-wing proselytising. The third film stretches that propaganda to such cartoonish extremes that I have to believe that Winner knew exactly what he was doing. It's pretty much a perfect parody of vigilante movies. It's much more poorly made than the first two films, and Bronson looks so tired and disinterested that I'm amazed he stuck around for two more, but it's still one of the most entertaining films Cannon ever produced. .475 inches out of .5.

No comments: