The Cult of Personal Vengeance in the Death Wish Movies (Part Two)

*contains spoilers

It was in the wake of citizen Bernhard Goetz (1947-) shooting in ‘self-defence’ four teenage criminals on a subway in New York in December of 1984 which had him dubbed The Subway Vigilante – a scene which seems to have been totally inspired by a scene in the first movie – which led to Death Wish 3 being timed for its release the following year.

One Harvard Professor named James Q. Wilson said at the time: “It may simply indicate that there are no more liberals on the crime and law and order issue because they’ve all been mugged.” Meanwhile Billy Joel sang We Didn’t Start the Fire as Americans found revenge for being picked on, as it was originally portrayed on the subway train in Larry Peerce’s The Incident (1967), as an acceptable reaction as anger mounted also within the musical top ten.

Bernhard Goetz (left) receives a courageous citizen certificate from one gun club
The subway scene a decade before Goetz’s attack in Death Wish (1974)
Joker (2019) seems to have also been inspired by Death Wish (1974)

Death Wish 3 was shot in New York and Brixton in London which sits in for the urban wasteland of a Bronx-like New York suburb under seige. Like the previous two movies in Winner’s trilogy, one of the punks went on to a respectable career. In the first it was Goldblum, in the second it is Laurence Fishburne (1961-) who would get an Oscar nomination for his role as Ike Turner (1931-2007 cocaine overdose) in What’s Love Got to Do with it (1993). In the third movie it is actor and director Alex Winter (1965-) of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) who is a punk that gets his just desserts.

Winter would later describe director Michael Winner as “a pathologically brutal, strange, sadistic, insecure, egotistical character”. Meanwhile Winner’s then girlfriend appeared in Death Wish 3 as a black topless woman who is raped and Sandy Grizzle (no info) would later tell newspapers Winner used her as a sex slave and whipped her and that she wasn’t treated with the same respect as Jewish actress Gillardo on set. I don’t know if Winner’s insecurity stemmed from his experience growing up Jewish in London… He seemed to behave himself on set in America. Certainly, Cary Grant (1904-86 after stroke) was scarred by his experiences as a Jewish child in England.

Death Wish 3 (1985) trailer
Oscar nominee Larry Fishburne in Death Wish II (1982)
Charles Bronson has a bigger one than Dirty Harry in Death Wish 3 (1985)

Death Wish 3 ups the ante as Bronson now takes on a large gang of thugs who killed an old army buddy and are also terrorising tenants of an apartment building. It is an epic which climaxes with war on the streets as Bronson uses a Magnum bigger than any used in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies and then pulls out a machine gun to finish the rest of the buggers off.

The war has begun on the streets of America and there is a song by band They Might Be Giants which apparently goes: “Don’t want to stay home and watch Death Wish 3” which may hint at the siege mentality of cities in America at the time. Or it might be a sweet way of saying I no longer want to hate for the moment… or watch Netflix.

There is no other solution except to take on crime at its heart yourself with massive firepower when there isn’t enough law enforcement to battle the scourge and this is probably why Death Wish 3 is considered a bigger cult item than the previous movie. Just more trivia and the actor Kirk Taylor (1959-) who plays The Giggler went on to be in Full Metal Jacket also.

The body count in Death Wish 3 is most impressive and was possibly the inspiration for later action movies and their sequels as each one tried to out gross the body count compared to the last which includes the John Wick movies that also feature that punk Laurence Fishburne! Sylvester Stallone’s (1946-) Rambo franchise may have been first.

Michael Winner’s Dirty Weekend (1993) was deemed a “video nasty” in Britain
J. Lee Thompson in crane chair directs Charles Bronson in The White Buffalo (1977)
The sweet Peppermint (2018)

Bronson would never work with director Winner again who had strutted around the Death Wish 3 set with a dictatorial cigar in his hand as Bronson instead aligned with director J. Lee Thompson (1914-2002 congestive heart failure) to make increasingly kinky and violent actioners for Cannon, including the more reserved Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987).

Let me mention that Winner wasn’t finished with the vigilante genre and he directed British movie Dirty Weekend (1993) which ran into censorship problems in England as it told the story of one of the first female vigilantes to be active… This would be celebrated later in such modern-day movies as the impressive Peppermint (2018) and the little-known A Vigilante (2018) which wasn’t bad. Winner’s final film Parting Shots (1999) had singer Chris Rea (1951-) as an overweight and middle-aged white man who upon finding out he is dying of cancer decides to avenge himself on all those who made him miserable throughout his lifetime from his school bully to his ex-wife and his former work colleague. He also kills a chef at a restaurant as possible revenge for all the bad meals and especially the bad oyster that wrecked Winner’s health in his final years which led to him seeking euthanasia as a possible way to end his suffering. Parting Shots is hated but it was love at first sight for me for the cast alone and the fact Rea finds love with Felicity Kendal along the way.

“If you remember me, remember me as the one who loved Parting Shots,” I told Kendal as joking parting shot after our ‘kiss’ and our brief conversation about the making of this movie.

Chris Rea sings Shadows of the Big Man (Live). The studio recording is better.
The under-appreciated Parting Shots (1999) quad
Chris Rea in Parting Shots (1999)

Winner’s last film is a black comedy and a total departure from the tone of the Death Wish trilogy. Or is it, since the trilogy in the end finished on an at times comical and comic book note? Each of the Death Wish films is approached differently if you care to notice.

One critic said of Parting Shots: “Parting Shots is going to set the course of British filmmaking back by 20 years” as the film is considered one of the worst movies ever made. However, this is really a valentine for all peace-loving men who let themselves get trodden on for a lifetime. The glorification of vigilantism is not an issue as the events are like seeing an old Ealing Studios comedy from the 1950s as you know that someone like Rea would never commit such crimes in the first place and all to an incongruously sweet score. Parting Shots is a feel-good vigilante movie in the truest sense… Your grandmother may love it. Oh, the political incorrectness of it all… I mean comedian John Cleese is in the thing.

Death Wish 4 is less explicit than Winner’s movies but there is an ingeniousness about this movie and a sense that care and love was taken to make the film – at least in terms of revenge on drug dealers and trafficking cartels. Bronson in this movie revenges the deliberately dealt overdose of cocaine in the form of a tablet to his girlfriend’s daughter who is played by Dana Barron (1966-) who was Audrey Griswold in the first National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) movie. Kay Lenz (1953-) from Clint Eastwood’s Breezy (1973) is her mother who is killed off later.

Death Wish 4 (1987) poster
Dana Barron (left) is killed by drugs in Death Wish 4 (1987)
Drug related: Jason McCallum and mother Jill Ireland

Bronson takes on a drug dealing empire with the help of a criminal who is impersonating a publishing tycoon and who supplies information to Bronson to turn two of the cartels upon one another in the hopes he would be in control of all the cocaine sold in Los Angeles and possibly beyond. Bronson is just a pawn but it all turns pear-shaped for these overdose dealers as once again the dream of the conscientious objector cum vigilante within us all comes true with the elimination of those creeps to perfection.

You see, Charles Bronson’s adoptive son Jason McCallum (1963-89 drug overdose) who was the adoptive son of Jill Ireland and her first husband David McCalllum (1933-) was a drug addict. In 1985, a doctor treating Jason for Hepatitis B said: “The kid is on the needle. He’s an addict,” to quote Jill Ireland’s memoirs. The irony of Jason’s death was that he was dealt the overdose while he was clean by his physician who was treating him with painkillers.

Ireland wrote about how she discovered she had been dealt a child who was the genetic son of addicts and alcoholics… as she raised the spectre of the genetic ‘bad seed’ whose built in genetics made him prone to addiction, just like so many who turn to a life of crime without a rich parent such as Ireland and Bronson to support him. She said Jason had his first encounter with drugs aged only seven and again at 12 when cocaine was offered to him by a bodyguard at a Rolling Stones concert. The kid obviously said yes in such a ‘cool’ rock and roll environment.

“Don’t even think you can flirt with it,” wrote Ireland of drugs which can be dealt either legally or illegally and which continues to ruin lives and scar society.

Another star is born with Bronson is Danny Trejo (right) in Death Wish 4 (1987)
Jason McCallum (bottom left) and family
The reality of drug addiction

So the fourth Death Wish movie is Bronson’s loving attempt to at least bring up the issue and of drugs as well as the personal dream to eliminate it in his family’s mind in some way or form. It should be noted that Jason’s two brothers from the McCallum marriage worked on the music score for this movie.

“Who are you?,” asks one of Bronson’s potential victims at the beginning of Death Wish 4.

“Death,” answers Bronson in this self-effacing dream sequence where Bronson thinks he has actually shot and killed himself.

Meanwhile drug kingpin John P. Ryan (1936-2007 stroke) suggests “Anyone connected with drugs these days deserves to die” and he speaks almost as his own judge, jury and executioner because in the end his actions cause Bronson to blow him away with a grenade launching rifle. Well done Charlie! Ryan embodies the “street pusher to the fat cat at the top” while a newspaper editor says resignedly to reporter Lenz: “Everyone uses drugs these days … and they don’t care.” Not until it strikes home and a beautiful looking child dies, something further spelt out in a scene in a morgue where the youngest in the collection of corpses isn’t even a teenager. The beauty of this movie is that the criminals really do bring their own empire down on themselves through sheer greed and arrogance.

Bronson looking cool in Death Wish 4 (1987)
Oil fields juxtaposed with drug cartels. Legitimate and illegitimate supply and demand.
It just gets bigger and better! Death Wish 4 (1987)

And this movie is perfect Christian vigilante movie fodder as the world is some type of purgatory for Bronson who serves as a false prophet through Ryan and yet Bronson’s also an anti-Christ in that Bronson’s actions are positive and save the world from worse evil in terms of the drug syndicates… which ultimately on the other hand makes him a type of human justice Christ figure for those he avenges. It’s all potential sainthood and Bronson is heaven on Earth in this movie as Deathwish 4 delivers the ultimate Biblical statement of approval through that old saying “an eye for an eye”. Yes, the Sally Field movie An Eye for an Eye (1996) is also another female forerunner and a good vigilante movie.

“How many children have you killed with this shit,” says Bronson who then blows away a pervert film distributor in a nod to Cannon’s self-destruction in making this a kind of perverted “message” movie in the first place. It echoes Bronson’s dream at the beginning… where Bronson once again is a false prophet/Christ/anti-Christ who is fed leads like some film critic or journeyman journalist as inspiration to end drug distribution in Los Angeles… It’s a racket just like the movie business and a lucrative one at that. The dynamics in Death Wish 4 are fascinatingly weird but ingenious as there is always the hope of karma intervening in this Bronson film along with a higher order of intelligence in terms of latter-day international policing with the cooperation of the media. We can only sit back and watch and hope fewer lives of addicted children and not ruined.

It’s a living. John P. Ryan wipes out rival gangs and himself at the end of Death Wish 4 (1987)
Gail Morgan Hickman also contributed to Dirty Harry movie The Enforcer (1976)
The final Death Wish movie The Face of Death (1994)

I’ll also add that around halfway through Death Wish 4 there is a vendetta scene between the two rival gangs juxtaposed in the setting of an oil field where legitimate supply and demand keeps the world at ransom in terms of the average person’s weekly budget of power and energy while ever present is the illegal underworld also forever doing business. There is a worldwide picture somewhere in Gail Morgan Hickman’s (1952-) script and she went on to pen Drug Wars: The Drug Cartel (1992) which was released shortly after Jill Ireland’s death. It’s a pity Death Wish 4 couldn’t save Bronson’s adopted son from a life and an early death amid drugs. Note that this Death Wish movie was unofficially remade in Bollywood as Mohra (1994).

It was around the time I was living in London and all the apartments around us seemed to be broken into while a friend in the next suburb had someone take a crap on their coffee table after helping themselves to a video tape recorder among other things. This contagious feeling of impotence in the face of the world led to Bronson making his final Death Wish movie with the title Death Wish: The Face of Death (1993) at the age of seventy-two. It’s got cult actor Michael Parks (1940-2017 no cause given) as a psychopath who runs your average fashion empire with a giant bubbling vat of acid on the factory floor, which of course is a natural to rid yourself of unwanted wives and employees. It’s a silly movie and the worst of the five if you don’t think all of the movies aren’t already bad enough! I forked out for my VHS copy for some exorbitant fee. I even bought the poster and had it framed. Talk about a good Charlie fan!

Death Wish 5: The Face of Death (1994) trailer
Somebody’s Son: Drug overdose victim Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger as Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). The nexus of the crisis of legal and illegal drugs and vigilantism.

As the unbaptised son of a Methodist and Catholic mixed marriage, let me pray on your behalf that all your injustices are revenged even if you can’t do so yourself. Really, we can only hope more prisons are built to comfortably store any criminals bent on reoffending. It’s all a case of nipping it in the bud as a juvenile offender by preventing recidivism or just letting them meet their fate within life imprisonment. Some reoffend just to go back to prison and are happy there to be free of their addictions and back with a roof over their head. They also can relieve their conscience due to the fact that if you do the crime, you do the time, as the worst offenders inflict no more misery on the outside world. More beds are needed for the young addicted in more ways than one than just in mental hospitals and prisons. I see that safe shooting galleries for drug users are also becoming a legal reality in Australia… Death Wish 4 and Jill Ireland’s son, whose only crime it seems was addiction should be a rallying cry for more understanding in dealing ‘seriously’ with the issue of violent crime and the fact cigarettes are very expensive! Only by locking up the worst killers and rapists and throwing away the key will relieve society of the anxiety of what they see on the television news each night and read in the newspaper. Or suffer firsthand the consequences…

Just a word on the Bruce Willis (1955-) remake of Death Wish (2018) and it seems to be one of the last good Willis movies of late. The use of Willis, who is not known for his acting ability, is great in that it matches Bronson along with the tough persona. Willis is an underrated actor and his work in the Vietnam veteran movie In Country (1989) was impressive while he has pleased action fans over the years as he fought terrorists in his ‘Die Hard’ franchise and got people off their couches and back into real life in the impressive Surrogates (2009). Remember him in the time travel Covid or Ebola-like 12 Monkeys (1995) as well as the excellent Looper (2012)?

Death Wish (2018) poster
A comic book
The iconic ending in Death Wish (1974)

This new Death Wish is set in Chicago where Willis’s Paul Kersey is nicknamed The Chicago Grim Reaper, as this version of Death Wish shows how guns around the home can protect citizens, while on the streets and in the hands of vigilantes, they remain an issue which is debated by shock radio jocks in Chicago who sound like Howard Stern. I guess having a gun around the house is also another euthanasia option too, so the Americans don’t need to legalise it.

“Are you the ice-cream man?,” asks Willis in the best line of the movie to a drug dealer, who answers: “Who are you?” as if he sold ice creams in the first place. Willis returns with a deadly gunshot and the line: “Your last customer.” Not as good as Bronson’s “Goodbye” but it’s up there. Death Sentence was the more pleasingly violent hard-edged recent release.

The iconic ending from Bronson’s movie is repeated as Willis points his finger and pulls the trigger like a gun at some a-hole who uses physical unruliness on the street as he heads towards performing some one-punch attack and then facing retribution.

Vigilantism remains an emotive issue and it is best left to the professionals… and retired incorruptible policemen with a hobby… I’m told.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the next generation of computer-generated movies which I dream will resurrect your favourite stars of yesteryear on demand in new movies with new plots. Let’s see Death Wish 6 through to ten starring Charles Bronson on my streaming platform as Casablanca 2 in colour can go and get stuffed!

For a look at being dealt a legal drug overdose: The Prescription for Misconduct (2016) may have killer Side Effects (2016) PRESS HERE.

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