Quantum Geek: Death Wish (July 1974)

Your Quantum Geek host, Dan Ashley, has seen just about every vigilante thriller ever made, and for how cheap and tacky many of them were, there's no denying the satisfaction one gets from seeing the sadistic scum of the earth pay for their sickeningly violent and psychotic crimes against humanity. And, well, sorry to all the bleeding heart liberals out there, but where Clint Eastwood isn't always around to clean up the streets, there are always a few good men we can count on elsewhere!

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For many years, late movie director Michael Winner suffered at the hands of critics and then also people of moderate importance, such as the censors of the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification). It might have seemed a no-brainer back in the day. Winner was not by any means a great film director. Most of the time, he wasn't a very good filmmaker at all, but he managed to grin and bear it because regardless of the criticism he faced, his movies were very popular at a time when most movie releases counted on word of mouth. If you ever grew up around controversy, you'll know that not all movies are successful based on how much they shock audiences. If a movie cannot entertain, it's not going to make money.

After a string of movie collaborations in the early '70s, Winner and late old school action legend Charles Bronson brought us Death Wish, a movie that turned the world on its head, despite its refusal to appeal to the fragile minds and stomachs of naive media darling twatbaskets. You see, if anything the '70s and '80s were a time when socially, sexually and politically empowered people could bitch about issues while outright avoiding the truth behind those issues. Death Wish was the cheap little New York City crime thriller that trolled the fakers, inviting them out to give in to their unchecked anger while attempting to come across as righteous. Whereas Europe and the US loved the movie, the UK tried to brush it under the carpet.

Michael Winner directed controversial vigilante thriller Death Wish
"For fuck's sake, Pedro! For the last time, NO! I don't want a hotdog!"
Successful New York architect Paul Kersey had it all, a great job, wife and a beautiful daughter. As a liberal and mild-mannered man, he believed that all crime was only ever as a result of poverty. That was until his wife and daughter were assaulted and raped in their apartment. His wife dying in hospital as a result, his daughter is institutionalised, his life destroyed. Kersey's views begin to change. Sent to Arizona on a job, Kersey is introduced to firearms at a gun range by his associate and later given a revolver as a thank you on a job well done. Returning to New York, he is forced to kill to protect himself. Like a shark tasting human blood for the first time, he gets a taste for it and begins setting out into the dangerous streets of nighttime NYC with a growing obsession for justice and to hopefully find the gang that destroyed his family.

There's no denying how basic the dialogue is in Death Wish, but it's classic Chuck Bronson, and at the same time, there's little issue with this aspect of the movie. The city sights do much of the talking with that smothering sense of claustrophobia, while I don't ever expect street thugs to be able to string together a coherent sentence. What really appeals to me is how simplistic its style of storytelling and progression is. It's so comicbook in its delivery. It needs no plot twists. The cops are morons. They don't want to have to endanger themselves, so rather than clean up the city's criminal population, they become more obsessed with hunting down the lone vigilante that is actually causing crime rates to plummet.


The real issue the more conservative-minded plebs had with Death Wish was that it was explicit for its time. Where Hitchcock and Kubrick liked to sugar their violence with artsy transitions, Winner goes balls-out crazy at times. He doesn't want the street trash to have reasons to have become what they are. They're the dumb and moronic evil that Stephen King writes about, the people of the world that either have no concept of right or wrong, or who outright choose to be as evil as evil can be, because that kind of people do exist. This film sees not only the rotten underbelly of '70s New York laid open for all to see, it also sees an unlikely hero in Bronson's character.

Kersey unwittingly follows the path of the righteous psychopathic serial killer, only to retain his humanity because- A.) At his core he is still the victim, and whereas he may be a criminal, he is not a bad man. He may seek vengeance, but he always acts out of retaliation, and, B.) He is what the city needs. No matter that this is supposed to be a civilised world where we strive to do what's right by peaceful means to an end, there is no end to the criminal element that will kill for a few bucks and/or a cheap thrill. Kersey represents that one man that steps over the line of a system that keeps only those that follow rules in check, the last people the law ought to be worried about.

Charles Bronson death wish pistol salute pointing finger and smiling
"Catch ya later, officer. PEW-PEWWWW."
In all, Death Wish is a fun and fascinating watch but with some very uncomfortable scenes, those that drive the story and the very reason we would ever want to watch it. It doesn't make us voyeurs, it makes us think quite deeply about what we see and it makes us ask if we think that the system is wrong. After all, isn't the justice system only there to pick up the pieces, and if so, what are we meant to do when they even fail at that?

Death Wish was not the beginning of the vigilante fad, not by a longshot. The 1972 novel rode in on the tail of a number of other novels exploring the same subgenre. Notably, Mack Bolan aka The Executioner proved very influential with mountains of popular novels over the decades. The vigilante to define all vigilantes, Frank Castle aka The Punisher, was also created and introduced to Marvel Comics before Death Wish, back in February of 1974. But there is no denying that Death Wish was the first movie to send the vigilante mainstream and to instal that archetypal character in the public psyche.

Nathan Edmondson Mitch Gerads Punisher 2014 I Skull LA
"Awww, why is nobody trying to snatch my purse?"
See these movies for yourself; Rolling Thunder, The Exterminator, Vigilante, Death Sentence, The Brave One. There are your revenge flicks and then there are your out and proud vigilante movies that don't hide what they really are.

Despite gradually getting worse in production value and becoming overall dumber, Death Wish had four sequels, which is actually astonishing simply for the fact that Bronson was already 53 when he made the first. Winner only made three of them, up until 1985. One year later, The Punisher got his own ongoing solo series and sent comic sales through the roof. Nobody could get enough of the army of one setting out to do what the cops are afraid to do for themselves.

That sentiment was seconded not only by the deadliest of Marvel antiheroes, but by all of your action movie favourites ever since Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Norris, Willis, Gibson, Seagal, Van Damme and Lundgren. After all, the Second Amendment is there to help US citizens to protect themselves from tyranny. If their government won't protect them from acts of terrorism on home soil, somebody has to, and that's where the worlds greatest ever action heroes came to be.

Death Wish director Michael Winner with Paul Kersey

Enjoy Death Wish with a few other classics, as mentioned above, or spend the night with the original three. They get sillier and sillier but I guarantee that you won't find such a fine blend of minimalist drama, hilarious dialogue and messed up violence. Also look out for the ridiculous amount of celeb cameos (Jeff Goldblum, Olympia Dukakis, John Herzfeld, Denzel Washington, Christopher Guest, Laurence Fishburne, Alex Winter, Ricco Ross, told you there was a lot).

Independence Day and The Fly actor Jeff Goldblum early film role
"Ooohhh, Chupa Chups!"
Thanks for reading and feel free to drop us a comment or share with your classic movie loving friends. Join us again on Thursday for the mother of all driving movies, where there will be mayhem aplenty!

-Dan Ashley


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