Meet Paul Kersey. He’s a New York City architect with very bad luck. One day his wife and daughter are followed home from the grocery store by Jeff Goldblum and his pals. Perhaps frustrated by the continual struggles of being a jobbing actor, Goldblum’s goons beat up Kersey’s wife and have a bit of a grope with his daughter before they’re scared off.
Kersey arrives at the hospital to find his wife has died in surgery, and his daughter in a catatonic state. He buries himself in his work and takes a business trip to Arizona, where a colleague gives him a gift to take home in his luggage. On his return, Kersey opens the gift box to discover a revolver. Instead of filing a lawsuit against the airline for negligent baggage checks, he takes to the streets as a vigilante.
By cover of darkness, and soundtracked by some funky Herbie Hancock beats, Kersey traps would-be muggers into making a move on him before he guns them down. After he kills a number of hoodlums, patrolman Nigel Tufnel covers up his arrest and Kersey is exiled to Chicago where he immediately identifies his next victims by pretending to shoot them in front of his new supplier. What a moron!
Death Wish II finds Kersey now living in Los Angeles with his daughter. This time around, it’s Lawrence Fishburne who numbers among those who gang-rape Kersey’s maid and kidnap his daughter. After she is raped, Kersey’s daughters attempts to escape by jumping through a glass window where she falls onto a steel railing and dies.
Kersey doesn’t take the news so well. Instead, he takes to the streets again, this time soundtracked by a fresh-out-of-Zeppelin Jimmy Page, where he hunts down his daughter’s killers one by one. At the end of the film, Kersey’s girlfriend leaves him when she discovers he’s a vigilante. Women!
The first victims of Death Wish 3 are the roman numerals of the title, as we open back in New York City where Kersey is visiting his old Army buddy. As Kersey takes a taxi from the train station to his friend’s apartment, a gang of thugs including Alex Winter (Bill from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) murder his friend.
Kersey becomes the local Neighbourhood Watch, soundtracked by rehashed Jimmy Page music from Death Wish II, and starts picking off gang members. The most ludicrous point of the whole film series comes when an attractive Public Defender, Kathryn Davis, asks him out for dinner. I’m not sure what sold her on Kersey – the fact that he’s thirty two years older than her, or the fact that he’s living illegally in the middle of a slum apartment block, with no visible signs of income – but he takes her up on the offer.
The romance doesn’t last long before old Paul ‘Unlucky In Love’ Kersey watches her perish in a fiery car accident. I expect that the upcoming Death Wish remake starring Bruce Willis will be a grim romantic comedy set in the world of Tinder, where women who swipe-right for Brucie accidentally die on their first date.
The end of the film features a long, boring gun battle between Kersey’s elderly clique and the criminals who are terrorising their neighbourhood. Ever the master of subtlety, Kersey uses an elephant gun, a machine gun, and ultimately blows the last remaining gang member through a window with a rocket launcher.
Death Wish 4: The Crackdown is the first film in the series not to be directed by Michael Winner, who left the franchise to spend his retirement eating Steak Tartare. This time around, Kersey is back in Los Angeles living with a fashion designer and her teenage daughter. Uh-oh. A blind man could see it coming…
When Kersey’s surrogate daughter dies from a drug overdose, he goes after the L.A. drug dealers who supplied her. This time Danny Trejo is a member of the organisation responsible, until Kersey kills him with an exploding wine bottle. Yes, you read that correctly, an exploding wine bottle. In a bold move that can be praised for its ingenuity as well as its ridiculousness, Kersey pretends to be a wine salesman, giving his sales pitch to the bartender before offering a free bottle to his targets. In one of cinema’s greatest moments of special effects work, a dummy (seemingly constructed by an autistic child to look like Danny Trejo) is then shown exploding. Ka-boom!
There’s another great moment in the film when Kersey is pulled over on a city street by a police car. As Kersey’s car slows to a halt, the residents of the first floor apartment block in the background walk up to the window to have a good look outside at the great Charles Bronson filming in their neighbourhood. I mean, who wouldn’t?
In 1988, John McTiernan’s Die Hard gave us the unforgettable image of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber falling to his death from high up in Nakatomi Tower. After Rickman’s close-up, the long-shot was filmed by a stunt man, who falls backwards, cycling his arms and legs as he plummets to the street below. It’s reassuring to know that a year earlier, the makers of Death Wish 4 did the same stunt the old-fashioned way by throwing a mannequin out of a tower-block window.
With some more great dummy work – when you pause the DVD, you can even see the wire taking the charge up to the explosive – Kersey dispatches the villain of the film this time with a grenade launcher. At this rate, he’ll be using nuclear weapons by the time Death Wish 10 rolls around.
The final film in the series, Death Wish V: The Return Of The Roman Numerals, returns the action to a fabricated New York, filmed on location in Toronto. Unfortunately there’s no before-they-were-famous Hollywood actor doing the antagonising at the start of the film, unless you count the recently departed Michael Parks – Tarantino’s favourite character actor – who plays the film’s lead villain.
The setting for this one is the shady world of the fashion industry, but who cares anymore. It could be set in Antartica and Kersey would still be blowing Eskimos away for looking the wrong way at his girlfriend. This time his fiancé is facially disfigured by a criminal, and later gunned down, so Kersey dusts off his gun collection and goes on the warpath.
Progressing from the explosive wine bottle, the most bizarre death this time around occurs when Kersey uses a remote control football – no, really – to deliver an explosive charge to one of his targets. Again, there’s some shockingly-bad-it’s-almost-good dummy work if you pause the action just after the victim picks up the football.
Death Wish V’s main villain dies by falling into an acid bath, and Kersey walks away, never to be seen again. Well, unless you count the Simpsons:
Jay Sherman: I’m your host, Jay Sherman, thank you. Tonight we review an aging Charles Bronson in Death Wish 9
Bronson: Ugh, I wish I was dead.
Hit: Who’s To Blame
Hidden Gem: Jam Sandwich