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Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Bloody Melancholy of Death Wish 3

In Michael Winner's Death Wish 3 (1985), architect/vigilante Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) returns to New York to meet with an old friend. But from the moment Kersey steps off the bus, he's returned to the surreal, apocalyptic New York of Death Wish (1974), in which muggers, rapists, murderers or thieves - collectively referred to as "creeps" - roam the streets with inescapable inevitability. Indeed, even as Kersey steps off the bus, he witnesses crimes taking place right in the bust terminal. Meanwhile, the friend he's visiting falls victim to a home invasion; Kersey shows up just in time to be falsely busted for the murder by the police.

However, New York's police chief is sympathetic and makes a deal with Kersey: shoot all the criminals you want, but report on gang activity from time to time.

With his vigilantism endorsed by the state, Kersey wastes no time taking over his friend's apartment and installing booby traps for the neighbours. It's a community under siege, with decaying, bombed-out buildings literally surrounded by roaming gang members wielding chains, crowbars, knives and guns. The creeps routinely rob and harass people on the street in broad daylight and break into apartments to beat up tenants and steal their stuff.

Kersey orders a gigantic handgun and loads it with bullets meant for elephants. He then proceeds to blow away gang members willy nilly. In one scene, he shoots a fleeing purse snatcher in the back, and witnesses cheer him on: "Great shot!" "Yeah!" "All right!"

The violence escalates. One of Kersey's neighbours, played by a slumming Martin Balsam, happens to have a couple of surplus World War II machine guns in his closet. Kersey orders grenades and a rocket launcher through the mail, which seems ludicrous, but I wouldn't be surprised if this is perfectly normal in the United States.

Meanwhile, Kersey enjoys a budding romance with a young lawyer, who is of course murdered, just as all Kersey's loved ones are murdered in this series of movies. Oddly, her death comes at the midpoint of the film, rather than kicking off the action as in the first two films; Kersey's killing spree is well underway by this point, and when he witnesses his new girlfriend's fiery death, he merely sighs, shrugs and turns away, as if he knew it was inevitable all along.

At the film's conclusion, Kersey arms himself with all his weapons and goes on his final killing spree, gunning down dozens of gang members. Eventually the neighbours, driven into a frenzy by the violent display, join in, attacking their tormentors en masse with whatever weapons they can lay their hands on. Even the police show up at last, making no effort whatsoever to arrest anyone; they simply join Kersey in gunning down creeps. Even the police chief himself personally murders a number of thugs.

In the film's final act of violence, Kersey vaporizes the gang leader with his rocket launcher. The neighbourhood is saved...until the next sequel, presumably. Kersey himself seems to derive little satisfaction from his actions; he looks tired, even a little sad, and walks away without fanfare as police sirens wail.

The most amazing thing about these Death Wish films is the way in which they see crime: it's everywhere. In each film, Kersey doesn't have to go looking for criminals; he simply walks down any street and inevitably finds a crook, which he efficiently dispatches, often to fawning news coverage.

It's hard to say whether a fear of crime creates movies like this, or movies like this create a fear of crime. Either way, this is a film dripping in paranoiac dread, and its fascistic text (it is hardly subtext!) makes it a bit difficult to laugh at the over-the-top action (though laugh I did).

Apparently Bruce Willis is working on a Death Wish remake. How very timely. 

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