Anthony's Film Review
Death Wish (1974)
Charles Bronson stars in an interesting thriller about revenge and vigilantism...
At first glance, you would assume that the movie Death Wish is a high-octane action film. The title alone suggests that there will be an appreciable body count, and the star, Charles Bronson, does look like a tough guy whom you don't want to mess with. While it is true that the movie is notably violent, I would not consider it an action movie. Rather, Death Wish would probably be better classified as a drama and thriller centering on the issue of crime.
In fact, the beginning of the movie presents Bronson as a decent, fairly well-off man. He plays Paul Kersey, an architect working in New York City. He's definitely a likable guy, an intelligent hard worker who also has a wife and daughter. In fact, the very first scene depicts him and his wife on vacation in Hawaii. This is important because it's the beginning of a character change. We're not talking about a guy who is already living a life of crime. We're talking about someone who might slowly get pulled in.
The turning point occurs when three muggers (including one played by a young Jeff Goldblum in a debut role) break into Kersey's apartment and beat his wife and daughter. The wife falls unconscious while the daughter is brutally raped. Once the muggers escape, the daughter calls the police. Kersey and his son-in-law are notified of this horrible attack. When they reach the hospital, they receive the grim news. The daughter is in critical condition while the wife has passed away.
There is a somber feel as the movie proceeds from that point on. Interestingly enough, Kersey's expression is essentially unchanged, even though you can guess that he is harboring grief inside. He does try to move on with his life as he continues his architectural work as usual. He even goes on a business trip to Tucson, Arizona, to meet with a client. But then, the second turning point occurs. Kersey, who reveals that he is a veteran of the Korean War, reacquaints himself with the use of guns.
Once Kersey returns to New York, we get into the second half of the movie where the real story begins. Kersey goes out at night with a revolver in his coat pocket. When a mugger attempts to steal his money, Kersey pulls out the revolver and shoots the mugger without hesitation. It certainly looks as if Kersey is just defending himself against anyone who happens to try hurting him. At the same time, Kersey appears to be going out at night without a destination in mind, meaning he is purposely waiting for muggers to come his way.
This, of course, triggers a somewhat peculiar police investigation. Anyone found shot to death will certainly lead police to find the killer. At the same time, the victim has a criminal record, which may sway some people to not care about the victim. Still, a detective named Frank Ochoa is determined to find the vigilante who shot a mugger. The film gets more interesting as Ochoa is much closer to catching Kersey.
For a simple crime story, I actually found myself asking a few interesting ethical questions. If a mugger threatens you but doesn't actually make a physical move yet, is shooting him considered an act of self-defense? Would it be self-defense if you placed yourself in a setting where you knew you'd be attacked? And if, as it happens in this movie, acts of vigilantism could lower a city's incidence of robberies, would prosecuting the vigilante be justified?
Of course, I'm not suggesting that being a vigilante is OK. Still, the exploration of this topic alone is the main reason I enjoyed Death Wish. By not resorting to cliches, the movie stands out among other crime thrillers. It's also worth noting that real-life crime rates in urban areas of the United States were increasing rapidly in the 1970s, so Death Wish was released as sort of a response to that unwanted trend. With that plus the script and the on-screen presence of Charles Bronson, Death Wish is a movie that delivers enough goods for the audience.
For more information about Death Wish, visit the Internet Movie Database.