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Around the time Charles Bronson kills a bad guy named the Giggler, it dawns on you that 1985's Death Wish 3 isn't a shitty action movie—or, anyway, it's not just that. It's also a gonzo piece of hallucinatory paranoia, a freakily heightened work of tortured logic.
The Giggler is a young hooligan, part of a racially diverse cartoon-punk gang that's been terrorizing the East New York tenement where Bronson's Paul Kersey has holed up. We've seen him snatch a purse and heard about him committing murder, but he mostly just looks like a doof. When Bronson exits the neighborhood bodega, sucking on a popsicle and dangling his camera over his shoulder, the Giggler sprints in, grabs the camera, and runs off. Bronson calmly disposes of the popsicle, pulls out a gigantic hand-cannon, and shoots the fleeing Giggler in the back. Dead. And the entire neighborhood erupts into cheers. To even watch this scene is to enter a state of euphoric disbelief. Here, try it.
The Death Wish movies were Bronson's entries in the great '70s-vigilante-movie sweepstakes, his answer to Dirty Harry. The first one, released in 1974, at least paid lip service to the idea that murdering young criminals is a fucked-up thing to be doing, carefully documenting Bronson's descent from naive liberal into cold-blooded killing machine. But by the time he showed up in the third one, Paul Kersey's entire family had been murdered, and he had to resort to avenging old friends who he'd never even mentioned before.
Bronson was in his mid-sixties by the third installment, decades removed from his roles in undisputed classics like Once Upon a Time in the West and The Great Escape, and not looking especially happy to be there. Director Michael Winner had helmed the previous two films (Death Wish 2 showed up in 1982), as well as effective pieces of Bronson-led '70s pulp like The Mechanic. He hit upon the idea that Kersey should be an urban Rambo, that he should evolve to fit the zero-subtlety '80s. Bronson reportedly hated the result, and he never worked with Winner again, not even on the two subsequent Death Wish sequels. Throughout the movie, he wears the same grimace of distaste. Somehow, though, it all works.
Death Wish 3 endeavors to pit Bronson against an entire neighborhood full of coke-snorting, face-painting, leather-wearing sociopaths. Their leader, Manny Fraker, promises to kill a little old lady for Bronson, and that's in his very first scene, before he even learns of Bronson's vigilante status. His underlings (including a pre-Bill S. Preston, Esq. Alex Winter) dress and look and behave like anonymous, disposable Double Dragon enemies. They burn and rape and rob and stab with absolute impunity, apparently secure in the knowledge that the police won't care. (Other than the one hardbitten detective who gives Bronson free reign to kill "creeps," the police mostly limit themselves to confiscating guns from defenseless old people.) We never learn why they're happy to kill everyone else in their neighborhood; they just are. The neighborhood seems like a fevered Road Warrior hellscape, and yet it's still inexplicably full of kindly old people who need protecting.
The idea of senior-citizen Charles Bronson as urban Rambo is patently absurd. (We see him doing push-ups at one point, and it looks weird.) But his unflappable presence—and, maybe, his total disgust for the movie he's starring in—make him the calm center of all this insanity erupting around him. He looks credible enough in his fistfights, but it's in the gun battles—especially the surreal and endless final siege—where his grizzled coolness reaches its fullest potential. He throws foes off rooftops, uses gatling guns and bazookas, sets booby traps, and generally murders more randoms than Jason in any given Friday the 13th movie. (I am not including Jason X in this equation. Bronson does not destroy an entire space station full of muggers, though if he'd stayed long enough and made enough Death Wish sequels to get to the inevitable outer-space installment, it would've been on the table.)
The rest of the movie is, in its way, charmingly amateurish. Other than Bronson, the only really famous person involved is Jimmy Page, who supplies the instantly dated synth-funk score. Scenes seem to cut off abruptly with no warning; the dialogue begs disbelief. (Bronson's love interest: "I have one sister. She lives in Binghamton, New York, and I hate her. But I looooove sports." A scene later, she's dead, and we never learn why she hates her sister in Binghamton.) People hated this movie; to this day, it's rocking a proud six percent on the Tomatometer. But in its frantically escalating ridiculousness, and its unwillingness to bore you for even a second, Death Wish 3 is its own type of phantasmagorical classic. Even on multiple viewings, you watch the entire movie in an extended state of "I can't believe this is happening in front of me." It feels like drugs.
Previous installment: The Legend of Drunken Master.
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