DVD Review: Death Wish 2 & Death Wish 3

Jonathon Dabell reviews both Death Wish 2 & 3 starring Charles Bronson and directed by Michael Winner.

Both films are released on DVD Monday February 13th (Death Wish 2 getting a Region 2 re-release, while Death Wish 3 is making its belated R2 debut).

The early ‘70s saw a slew of realistic and taboo-busting movies about urban violence, with titles such as The French Connection, Serpico, Across 110th Street, Dirty Harry and Shaft among the pick of the bunch. By 1974, audiences were already growing desensitised towards foul language, graphic violence and explicit sex – it seemed that there was little left that could shock them or manipulate their emotions.

Then along came Death Wish, a film which found enormous favour with the public, particularly in America where the big cities were rife with crime. The sight of middle-aged businessman Charles Bronson dishing out his own brand of vigilante justice had cinema audiences jumping out of their seats in excitement and yelling fervent support at the screen. Director Michael Winner had found a winning formula – a cathartic wish-fulfilment fantasy for ordinary people fed up with the crime and squalor around them.

Such success meant that a sequel was inevitable. As it happened, Death Wish eventually went on to spawn four sequels, none of them anywhere near as good as the original but all of them popular enough at the box office to keep the studio executives happy.

Death Wish 2 is arguably the weakest film in the entire series. Michael Winner directs again but this one lacks the black humour of the original and doesn’t try to explore any of the ambivalence of vigilantism. Instead, it is an ultra-seedy shoot ‘em up with heavy emphasis on the more unpleasant aspects. There had already been a surprisingly brutal rape sequence in the original but that is nothing compared to the three gloatingly nasty rape sequences in Death Wish 2. Furthermore, Bronson’s character is no longer troubled by his dark path of revenge – he positively enjoys wiping out the scum, disposing of them with something approaching zeal.

The story – such as it is – finds Paul Kersey (Bronson) living and working in Los Angeles after fleeing the consequences of his vigilante killing spree in New York. His daughter Carol (Robin Sherwood) remains catatonic after being beaten and raped in the earlier film. Kersey enjoys a relationship with radio journalist Geri Nichols (Jill Ireland), but hasn’t told her about his violent past.

Another group of thugs ruin Kersey’s new-found happiness. First, his housemaid is brutally raped and murdered; later his daughter is kidnapped, raped and dies while trying to escape. These events merely convince Kersey that it’s time to start killing the scum once more.

The film is a total disaster, with hopeless performances, absurd dialogue and cheapjack action. It marks a hitherto unimagined low point in action/exploitation cinema.

 Death Wish 3 is slightly better, mainly because it doesn’t take itself very seriously and climaxes with a street battle which manages to be remarkable and sickening in equal measure. There isn’t a single moment in the film which aspires to be believable. It opts instead for a comic-strip approach; a cartoonish mix of trigger-happy carnage and action.

This time, Kersey returns to New York to visit an old friend but when he arrives, he finds his friend dying on the floor after being beaten by local thugs. It soon becomes apparent that the entire neighbourhood is in the grip of fear from a gang of street hoodlums, led by the psychopathic Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy).

A tough cop, Inspector Shriker (Ed Lauter), persuades Kersey to turn vigilante once more, this time with the unofficial support of the law. Kersey makes booby traps and baits the thugs, picking them off one by one to the relief of the honest citizens in the district. Eventually, a full-scale riot kicks off and the entire neighbourhood ends up resembling something from a World War II battlefield, with Kersey mowing down the bad guys with an assortment of weapons.

While Death Wish 3 is by far the most ludicrous entry in the series, it is at least interesting for its Rambo-like climax in which Bronson becomes a one-man-army. Any semblance of realism is nowhere to be found and the film gleefully sets about depicting wholesale mayhem. On the level of pure action, it is technically impressive but its narrative is virtually non-existent. The performances however, are OK, especially O’Herlihy’s baddie, Lauter’s crooked cop and Martin Balsam as a pissed-off citizen who’s ready to rally under Bronson’s vigilante flag.
Death Wish 3 is a bad movie for sure, but a fun bad movie.

FMV Ratings:  Death Wish 2 *  Death Wish 3 **

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