Home Video Hovel- Death Wish 3, by Aaron Pinkston
The original Death Wish is probably held in highest regards when it comes to the Paul Kersey vigilante series, but none may have as wide a following or as bright a reputation as Death Wish 3 (yeah, for some reason the series decided the roman numerals were just too classy). Or maybe it’s just me and the city I live in, as the film is an oft midnight screening and has been lauded as part of the “New Cult Canon” by Chicago-based A.V. Club. Though the film has a slightly lower Netflix-user rating than the more straight-faced Death Wish II, scrolling through the reviews, it certainly seems that there are more ravenous fans who adore the third film. Given all this, I sort of had an idea of what to expect from Death Wish 3 — a bit more action, more violence, and a more ridiculous nature we haven’t seen yet in the series.
And, boy, does it deliver.
Though the formula remains mostly the same, everything is taken to eleven. The cops are no longer just unsympathetic and dumb, they teeter between being evil and openly condoning, basically funding, Kersey’s newest killing spree. No more are the baddies nameless hoods, they are now cold psychopaths that we actually spend time with, fully understanding their depths of evildom. There is an added theatricality to the gang, with strange haircuts and the use of face paint. This gives something that the first two films were sorely missing, actual characters in opposition to our hero, villains that can stand up to Kersey’s level of cool. In all these ways, Death Wish 3 positively reminds me more of another mid-80s crime thriller, one of my absolute faves, RoboCop. I wouldn’t actually be surprised if Verhoeven saw Death Wish 3 and was directly inspired by it.
In the film, Kersey returns to New York City to visit a friend. Spoiler alert (not really): his friend is brutally murdered by a gang of thugs, leaving Kersey no other choice than to enact cold, hard vengeance. The city he has returned to also takes on this heightened sensibility. While it is still the dark, violent city portrayed in the first film, it has a post-apocalyptic feeling that fully enhances everything here, helping the craziness that eventually goes down go down more smoothly. The city settings look to be dying, at the least completely corrupted by criminals. The ever-present gang, tricked out like a deleted element of The Warriors makes the city more vibrant and more dangerous.
Made only three years after Death Wish 3, Charles Bronson seems to have aged a decade. He was never quite spritely, of course, but his full head of graying hair and overall age are quite noticeable now. For example, there’s a scene where Kersey chases a thug on foot. Seeing Bronson do something that looks like the human activity of running makes me think it was a very long day on set. Maybe because of this (or perhaps just as another way to throw the film over-the-top), Kersey’s attitude shifts a bit. The first two films were notable in that Kersey wasn’t the usual action-hero quipster, cracking puns before dispatching his enemies. We don’t go to Schwarzenegger levels of punniness here, but he interacts much more with the baddies, showing charisma and wit. Giving the hoodlums a definable character and letting Kersey dialogue certainly adds to the film’s more comedic sensibilities.
Not exactly “so bad, it’s good” quality, there is no denying that Death Wish 3 is campy fun. There are some notably classic scenes, like an extremely awkward dating sequence and a scene where Martin Balsam (yes, that Martin Balsam) shows he’s hiding a comically large military-style machine gun inside of a classy armoire. Want to see a 70-year-old Martin Balsam kick some ass? (You know you do…) The film is also nearly strangled by a strange (and awesome), uber-80s soundtrack. All of this comes together for a crescendo of a finale, bigger than any action setpiece in the series so far — explosion after glorious explosion. There are a lot of ingredients that cater to large groups watching this film together, late at night, fully participating in this crazy world. The next time I see it playing midnight at the Music Box, I’m curious to see what that experience is like.
All three new Blu-Ray releases that I’ll be reviewing are basic, bare-bones, without special features other than each film’s theatrical trailer. Given the cult life Death Wish 3 has achieved, I wish it had been given more attention and care. The filmmakers may not have foreseen this strange success, but I’m sure there are people connected to the film that have excellent stories about the film’s production and legacy. Maybe one day we’ll get the original film released and that could cover a lot of this ground, but until then, I can’t help but be a bit disappointed with this lack.