Made thirty years ago, Death Wish remains relevant even though many things depicted in the movie (e.g. computer technology) have changed considerably. The pertinent conditions in many American cities (e.g. rampant crime, victim disarmament) have not changed that much. This movie is really more than a “guilty pleasure.” It occasionally shows considerable insight.
Charles Bronson stars as Paul Kersey, an urban “bleeding heart liberal” (labeled so by one of his “conservative” workmates), who undergoes a personal tragedy involving city violence. Kersey’s wife (Hope Lange) and daughter are assaulted, raped and left for dead by young hoods (a very early screen role for Jeff Goldblum) in their New York apartment. Kersey’s life is made a shambles with the loss of his family. He is left with little other than his work as an architect.
His frustration with the ineffectiveness of the police grows with his exposure to the “justice” system. A more recent movie, Eye for an Eye (1996 – starring Sally Field and Kiefer Sutherland), expresses a very similar outlook on the lack of justice in the American “justice system.” Police and law enforcement mechanisms in both movies are shown as part of the problem rather than any sort of solution.
Kersey is sent by his architectural firm to the American West to design a real estate development. Paul makes a new friend in his client, who re-exposes him to firearms and the idea of self-defense. Upon his impending return to New York his new friend gives him a surprise parting gift. Back in New York upon unwrapping the present, Paul discovers a .32 caliber revolver (a very unlikely modern choice for an actual self defense weapon for Charles Bronson, or even someone with a smaller frame). However, in the movie, it helps to even the score.
Death Wish is loosely based on a book of the same name by Brian Garfield. I’ve not read the book and many accounts say the book does not share many viewpoints with the movie. The movie is often dismissed as violent and “macho.” Although, by today’s standards, it is not terribly violent, it is still often dismissed as “macho.” With Sally Field in a corresponding role, that complaint does not hold up at all for Eye for an Eye. In reality, the “macho” label has little relevance for Death Wish, but still is often applied allowing for easy dismissal of the points about self-defense raised by the film.
Both movies address the legitimacy of vigilante efforts to pursue justice. Both protagonists face opposition from the “justice” establishment, represented in Death Wish mainly by Inspector Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia). The police in Death Wish are usually depicted as more interested in stopping “the Vigilante” than reducing crime against innocents. They also appear to have a very cavalier attitude about warrants and civil liberties. This aspect of the film has become more applicable with the passage of time.
Death Wish predates recent efforts to popularize concealed carry permits, which are still not available for regular people in cities such as New York. Kersey has no permit.
Charles Bronson died not long ago. When all is settled, Death Wish may be one of his more lasting contributions to movie history. This film raises and provides possible resolutions to several real problems with urban life in America. It may have been a popular part of turning the tide on these important issues.