These past few years we have been given a bunch of Expendables movies and we were witnesses to Liam Neeson becoming an action star in his late 50s. What most of us don’t realize is that 30 years earlier the same thing happened with Charles Bronson. Bronson was a character actor who appeared in a lot of movies, but none of them were action flicks like we know them today. The original Death Wish was more a drama infused with a political message than a straight up action movie. It was raw and gritty like other movies with an urban setting released in the 70s. Serpico, Taxi Driver and even Rocky come to mind in terms of atmosphere and low-key approach to the material. When the low budget movie studio Cannon bought the rights to Death Wish they immediately started churning out sequels that were more exploitative and action oriented, making Charles Bronson an action star competing with names like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger for the box-office. The only difference being that Bronson was already in his sixties when he starred in a movie like Death Wish 3
With no direct family left Death Wish 3 picks up some time after the previous movie which ended with Bronson’s Paul Kersey now permanently roaming the streets at night trapping and killing muggers. When we meet him this time around he’s driving to the city he was warned not to return to: New York. Here he is visiting an old friend living in one of the worst neighborhoods and finds him breathing out his last breath after having his home invaded by a gang that controls the local area. Kersey is arrested when the police find him above the body, but the chief running the precinct recognizes Kersey, now operating under the name Kimble, from the vigilante murders ten years ago. He strikes a deal with Kersey: since the police aren’t able to get a grip on the gang, he gives Kersey a free pass to do what he has been doing best: taking out the trash.
The first Death Wish was a gritty movie, and the second already more exploitative and polished. The third installment is actually something unique, making this one a cult classic. They have stripped away all the parts of Kersey’s characterization and made him somewhat of a geriatric Rambo. He’s almost a cartoon character which goes the same for his opponents. To be honest, in Death Wish 2 the opponents were hardly less goofy, but here they actually seem to have walked from a Mad Max set in between takes to film this movie. With booby-traps and a giant gun he nick-names ‘Wildey’, Kersey takes out the bad guys like a McGuyver for adults. The booby-traps in this picture might even have inspired Chris Colombus in writing Home Alone.
There is a sadistic undertone throughout the movie, which some people like to refer to as ‘fascist’. Bronson isn’t a white knight in shining armor, but reverts to dirty tricks to clean up the streets. When a purse snatcher runs away from his latest victim Bronson pulls out a gun he himself describes as “a shorter version of the African big game cartridge, it makes a real mess.” He isn’t exaggerating. When he shoots the purse snatcher in the back the kid is literally blown away. Another fine example: after some sort of spring board booby-trap is set off after an attempt to break in Bronson resets the device noticing something sticking in the board, when asked what it is he gleefully replies “teeth”. Violence is embraced by Death Wish 3, a movie which turns down the amount of rapes and sexual assaults in favor for gun fights and exploding cars. Though there are still two nudity filled assaults on women, but compared to the second movie that’s quite a modest number. In the first movie Kersey only used a sock full of quarters and a small hand gun, here he’s firing a machine gun and a rocket launcher at one point.
Due to this style and tone Death Wish 3 is a very funny movie. It’s possible this is unintentional, but it’s hard to imagine they didn’t have a clue about what they were making. The neighborhood is obviously a sound stage and the status quo about how this gang has turned an entire neighborhood into a war zone is far fetched. The gangs are even more ridiculous. In reality gang members can be identified by certain marks like a color of an piece of clothing or a tattoo. In Death Wish 3 most of the gang members walk around as failed punkers with a sign across their face. The leader and main nemesis for Kersey has an inverted mohawk; he has a shaven stroke down the middle of his hair which he has given some flair by painting a gang sign. It looks rather goofy on a guy who is actually trying to look menacing.
Despite the over-the-top and tongue in cheek approach, Death Wish 3 does make some unnecessary choices. Even though his dead army buddy is the reason he’s helping a small amount of decent people fight a war against a gang, the writers had to insert a love interest for Kersey who ends up being killed in a car crash caused by the gang members in the middle of the movie. Even though the crash is just a simple collision on an intersection it wouldn’t be an 80s action movie if both vehicles immediately exploded. If they translated that typical trope to today it would probably mean that every time a hybrid car or a Tesla is part of a crash everyone inside is automatically electrocuted.
In the original movie part of what inspired Kersey to pick up the gun himself was a Western show he sees during his short time in Arizona. In Death Wish 3 he’s actually walking the streets together with the police captain by his side, shooting bad guys as they pop up from behind stuff. It nicely sums up what Death Wish 3 is: a western set in an 80s setting. The only element missing was Kersey driving off into the sunset.