Death Wish 3 might be the most insane, spectacular action film ever made. The film trims the “fat” of the first two (such as Paul Kersey’s attempts to balance a normal life with frequent vigilante killings) and amps up the film’s universe to a degree so over-the-top, not even John Waters would be bold enough to go there. The result is a gloriously violent, laughably absurd, but undeniably entertaining masterpiece of action filmmaking. Yes, it’s stupid and silly and cheesy and inconceivable, but for its chosen genre, it’s one of the high water marks.
The film opens with Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) returning to New York City for the first time after taking his vigilante act on the road. He wants to visit a friend—a Vietnam vet who lives in a slum so violent, it’s beyond any mere mortal’s imagination—but when he arrives at the apartment, he finds the man has been brutally murdered by one of the numerous hoodlums overrunning the streets. Inconveniently, Paul arrives just as the police show up. They arrest him for the murder and drag him to the station.
Shriker (Ed Lauter, who previously costarred with Bronson in Death Hunt), who heads the “NYCPD” drug task force, recognizes Paul from his exploits in New York a decade ago. He offers a deal to Paul: he’ll put him on the streets to reduce the number of hoodlums, and in exchange Paul will be untouchable by police. Paul initially refuses, but when he’s harassed in lockup by Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy), the Opie-esque leader of a gang whose fashion sense and painted faces make them look like they recently left Thunderdome, Paul changes his mind. He wants to take down Fraker and his gang.
Both Paul and Fraker are let loose on the streets. Paul returns to his friend’s tenement building, which is occupied by the nicest bunch of people you could possibly imagine—an elderly Jewish couple who mind their own business, a young Latino couple just starting out, and a swingin’ single named Bennett (Martin Balsam), who schools Paul on the way the neighborhood works. From there, it’s a high-stakes battle between Paul’s high-powered revolver and the increasing insanity of Fraker’s coked-up antics. This culminates in an epic 20-minute street battle that rivals Saving Private Ryan in raw violence and chaos. I’m not being hyperbolic at all—it obviously lacks Saving Private Ryan‘s depth and meaning, but it is equally as intense and frenetic.
This movie is a mind-boggling joy to watch. Winner shifts the tone from the first film’s gritty sense of realism to the outsized realm of a living cartoon. It’s impossible to do it justice in words, so here’s a brief clip that says it all:
This is the world of Death Wish 3 in a nutshell: maniacal gangsters, impotent policemen, and benevolent Paul Kersey becoming the hero of the day simply by taking action.
Taking his cues from a screenplay so insane that writer Don Jakoby removed his name from the final film, Winner creates this seemingly apocalyptic world through a combination of budget-conscious choices: Filming in weed-choked, bombed-out sections of London to substitute for New York; covering the thugs in war paint to distract from the ratty, thrift-store clothing; and finding a group of “good” characters so polite and noble, nobody in the audience could possibly root against them.
Almost like science fiction, Death Wish 3 has only the tiniest possible footing in the real world. The film manages to succeed for two reasons. First, the goofy insanity of this world is consistent in its presentation—it doesn’t shift from gritty and real to raucous and over-the-top. Second, and most importantly, Paul Kersey still shines as a beacon of believability in the midst of the mayhem. Not because the sight of a well-built man in his mid-60s firing a gatling gun into a city street is in any way believable—because Bronson still plays him as a wounded man driven to his breaking point by what he’s experienced in his life. His anger and disgust is palpable and relatable, even if the things that anger and disgust him are jaw-droppingly farfetched. It’s also a nice touch that the other residents of the decaying apartment building join Paul in his stand against Fraker’s gang.
This film’s not for everyone, obviously. If you enter the world of Death Wish 3, you probably know what you’re getting into. The good news is that the film delivers beyond any viewer’s wildest expectations. This is why it received the coveted four-star rating. For what the movie wants to achieve—a chaotic, over-the-top action film—it surpasses any other example of the genre, including the other four films in the Death Wish series. As an avid fan of ridiculous action movies, I can guarantee you that you’ll never see anything else like it. Ever.