The Direct to Video Connoisseur

I'm a huge fan of action, horror, sci-fi, and comedy, especially of the Direct to Video variety. In this blog I review some of my favorites and not so favorites, and encourage people to comment and add to the discussion. If you click on an image, it will take you to that post's image page, which includes many more pics from the film and other goodies I couldn't fit in the actual review. For announcements and updates, don't forget to Follow us on Twitter and Like our Facebook page. If you're the director, producer, distributor, etc. of a low-budget feature length film and you'd like to send me a copy to review, you can contact me at dtvconnoisseur[at]yahoo.com. I'd love to check out what you got.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Death Wish (1974)

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Obviously this is not a DTV flick, though back when I did my Wild Card posts at the end of the week, this would've been one, because, while it isn't DTV, it had a huge influence on DTV bad actioners, even if very few ever truly capture what this one was going for. Anyway, even though we don't have the Wild Card post anymore in practice, I wanted to look at this one because our friend Kenner at Movies in the Attic (link is to his review of the Death Wish series) sent me VHS copies of part IV and V, but I wanted to watch the earlier ones first, and figured I'd review them as I did so.

Death Wish stars Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, a successful New York architect whose wife is murdered and daughter brutally raped and traumatized by a home invasion. His job sends him to Tuscon after to work with a rich landowner, Stuart Margolin, and the guy changes his worldview. Instead of being anti-gun, he's now in favor of an armed response to the New York crimewave, and when he gets back, he starts a vigilante campaign, luring muggers and other criminals into thinking he's an easy mark, then gunning them down. It creates an international sensation, leaving the NYPD between a rock and a hard place: they want him to stop, but they don't want to arrest him when he's so popular. They assign detective Frank Ochoa (Frank Gardenia) to the case, and he has a tough job as he tracks Bronson throughout the city-- especially when he's not even sure he wants to arrest him if he does find him.

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I am in firm agreement with Kenner on this one. It's a truly great film, and not simply for its action elements-- in fact, it has relatively few. What it does do is blur the social commentary, blend the brutal with the black humor extremely effectively, while throughout never getting away from the core of the film, which is one man's struggle with a brutal tragedy that he ultimately can't do anything to fix. And like Kenner, I thought the fact that he never actually tracks down his wife and daughter's attackers, and is instead killing thugs in general, gives this a very different kind of revenge motif. Is it justice he's after? Catharsis? A sick thrill? Or maybe a combination of all three. But you can't help rooting for Bronson and being compelled by his character. Often imitated, but never duplicated, Death Wish.

Charles Bronson has a strong charismatic presence, but I don't think he gets enough credit for being a solid actor too, which he shows here. He starts the film as a cool guy, but very mild mannered. There are some jokes made about him being a bleeding-heart Liberal, but we find out later that there's more to it than that, and he wears those layers well. Later, as he starts fighting back, it's not an all at once suddenly he's a badass situation, it's something his character has to get used to, and Bronson does a great job with that as well. I loved the metamorphosis, and when we consider these scenes aren't shot chronologically the way we see them, it demonstrates the kind of quality of acting Bronson brought to the table. I also had to throw in a shot from early in the film of him in a Speedo. Any light beer commercial that wants to define manhood based on swimwear choices needs to shut the hell up (anyone remember that commercial?), because Bronson's much more manly than light beer, and he wore a Speedo.

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The Rockford Files is one of my all time favorite shows, so it was sweet to have two-time Emmy winner Stuart Margolin in this as the Arizona landowner. In honor of that fact, I uploaded an MST3K riff on The Rockford Files on the image page. Here he's as far from Angel as he can be, and I almost didn't recognize him. He plays a really great character, a kind of antithesis to the New York urban elite, and I loved watching he and Bronson play off each other.

This had some great cameos and co-stars beyond Stuart Margolin. We had the late Frank Gardenia, who was excellent as the detective tracking Bronson. We had cameos from Jeff Goldblum, who was in the gang that killed Bronson's wife and raped his daughter; and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who had a short scene near the end as a member of another gang. The latter was unremarkable, just a cool novelty; but the former, the Goldblum one, was a trip, because he was a scary dude, channeling some Clockwork Orange or something. I think because we know going in what happens to Bronson's family, that scene of the attack had to be particularly chilling to draw us in, and Goldblum was a big part of why it did.

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One thing I thought was interesting as I was watching this, was the fact that in New Hampshire, the state I almost live in, none of what Bronson was doing would have been illegal. They have a stipulation in the law that if one is attacked, one has the right to use deadly force in self-defense. If we look at what Bronson does in Death Wish, he never provokes an attack, he has a licensed handgun-- or, at least it would be in New Hampshire, a man of his stature would have no trouble getting a concealed weapons permit--, and he's simply defending himself from muggers. If no one were to attack him, no one would be killed, and as a citizen, it is his right to walk the streets at any time of night and not have to accept that he might be attacked. I don't know how New York mitigates these aspects of the law, but it is an interesting dynamic to consider, because I'm sure New Hampshire isn't the only state that has that stipulation in the law-- though New Hampshire's motto is Live Free or Die, so you never know.

This is currently on Watch Instantly, but if you can get it on DVD in widescreen format, I'd go for it. This is a true classic, and a real landmark film that has had a huge influence over the action genre. On top of all that, it's actually really well made and deals with a lot of social and moral issues in a compelling, yet not preachy or agenda driven kind of way. It's a movie that's surprisingly as relevant today as it was 37 years ago.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071402/

21 comments:

  1. Great write up - one of my favorite 70's flicks. I didn't realize Bronson was dead, but he had a pretty cool story - go read the bio on wikipedia when you get a free minute.

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  2. Wow, did not see this review coming. Yep, this is a really good flick. I enjoy the trashy sequels a lot but they've kind of given this film a bad name. There's a massive difference between Death Wish 1 and Death Wish 3. In the original he's less of a clear cut hero - we empathise with his situation but the film doesn't necessarily glorify his actions.

    Apparently there's a book called Bronson's Loose that covers the making of all five films. I'm thinking of asking of it for Christmas.

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  3. Liked them all, but only the first actually has any substance. I mean, how many tragedies can you make him suffer? the first one should stand alone,and the sequels ignored.

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  4. Great review! Charles Bronson at his coolest. The sequels were fun too. Death Wish 3 and 4 being the silliest.

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  5. I've checked out that bio before, and I agree, it's worth a look for anyone who hasn't yet. And that book sounds like a great deal too, I'll have to check it out.

    While I agree that the sequels need to be looked at apart from the first one, to say they have no value or should be ignored is a erroneous. I just went back to my part III review, and that movie was extremely influential on the DTV B-action genre. It was as instrumental as anything in the early Cannon/Golan-Globus period in getting us to the fantastic stuff we love from the late 80s/early 90s-- not to mention I think GTA III drew a lot from it.

    The sequels were definitely hit or miss. Though I need to see 2, 4, and 5 again because it's been a while, part III is a great time, and absolutely shouldn't be ignored.

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  6. That's weird, I thought they'd publish your comment Ty after mine, because it gave me the notification while I was drafting my comment, so I waited until mine was up to publish it (I'm still new to this moderating comments thing, while I know you're old hat).

    I haven't seen part IV in forever (which Kenner can't be stoked about because he sent me the VHS like a year ago), but part III was fantastic bad action. The only thing it really had in common with the first one was they both had that Western in an urban environment style to them; but then part III is totally infused with Cannon/Golan-Globus's approach to action, which is any action fan has to love. I know I do.

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  7. Terrific review. The Death Wishes are some of my all time favorites. I never miss a chance to watch them when they're on AMC. Part 3 is my favorite but 5 is second by a very slim margin. Awesome Michael Parks, awesome kills, awesome quips. I can't wait till you get to that one.

    And yes Jack, Bronson's Loose is worth every penny.

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  8. Great Bronson. Fans looking for decent DVDs should scour the Internet for the Australian "Death Wish Vigilante" box set which is the only way to get all 5 films in 16:9 widescreen. It's long deleted and highly sought after, however, but worth the investment.

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  9. Agreed with every word of your review, BTW what are your thoughts on "Death Sentence"?(which is spiritual sequel of sorts since it was based on the follow-up novel to Death Wish)

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  10. No thoughts on Death Sentence, never seen it.

    Yeah, part III is fantastic, and I'd heard that 5 was a lot of fun, so I can't wait to get there too. Expect II this week.

    The Australian box-set sounds pretty sweet. I just watched this one on Netflix Watch Instantly (which I know you don't get in Australia, so it's no help to you), and it was in widescreen, which was a surprise to me. It may have been the first time I've seen this in widescreen.

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  11. Great review of a classic movie. I also find Bronson to be an underrated actor (check out the scene when he returns home after attacking the mugger with the rolled up coins)

    There's never been another actor that could project the same look of badassery. My Girlfriend painted me a huge portrait of Charles Bronson about 4 years ago...and it still takes pride of place in my (otherwise scruffy) flat.
    You should check out (the off-beat western) FROM NOON TIL THREE for another underrated Bronson performance (if you haven't already)
    Fans of the DEATH WISH series should seek out the double sided DEATHWISH 1+2 (R4 DVD) which features a nice UNCUT print of DW2.

    (P.S, Bronson got his revenge with Jeff Goldblum in ST IVES...another cool movie)

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  12. Good stuff. The original is far better than the others, though I do enjoy the last three for all the wrong reasons. They're frigging hilarious.

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  13. Yeah, Matt you need to check out Death Sentence too. Bacon is fantastic. (I mean the actor, not the pork product.)

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  14. Oh, it's the Keven Bacon movie, I've seen that one. It was very humorous to say the least-- and it was directed by the Saw guy too, which was probably why I had trouble taking it seriously.

    Three is definitely a different kind of movie from part 1, but it's still awesome. It's just so Cannon, if you know what I mean.

    And I'm in total agreement with you Lee. It was that post attack scene when he's shaking as he pours himself his liquor that really got me, but the whole metamorphosis was great. I haven't seen From Noon 'Til Three in forever, so I'll have to make that happen. And those R4 DVDs sounds pretty sweet. I might like part 2 better uncut like that.

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  15. Great review of this beautiful classic! I love the sequences too, specially the third one.

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  16. Yeah, it really is a great and influential movie.

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  17. I reviewed this one recently during my "revenge month" thing I did last month. Loved it, I was surprised to see Jeff Goldblum in there as a villain, same went for Lawrence Fishburn.

    The sequel "Deathwish 2" was basically the same movie...step by step the same story.

    Many of the more recent sequels (I think from part 4 onward) went straight to dvd, should be perfect reviewing material for the Direct to Video Connoisseur!

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  18. Actually Part 5 was a theatrical release. I know because I saw it in the theater. What an incredible experience.

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  19. I like Death Wish 3, 4 and 5. 3 and 5 are actually sort of well made movies, the thing with Death Wish 5 is to remember that it went in another direction. Kind of like an inbetween of 1 and 4. I liked the villains, I liked the kills and I felt Bronson's presence convinced me for the need of vengeance which admittedly parts 2,3 and 4 didn't. If that makes sense. I liked it.

    Death Wish 3 was just a great bodycount actioner in the vein of Cobra, Commando, The Punisher and Invasion USA, just a non-stop turkey shoot.

    Death Wish 4, while I give it a two star rating, it's one to take with a grain of salt cause I find it incredibly entertaining, it's just that if you like filmmaking you'll notice how cheap jack the movie is, how lame the shoot outs are staged and how Bronson's reason for vengeance as well as the bad guy's plan to get Bronson in action is utterly stupid, even by action movie standards.

    Death Wish 1 though is by far the best, because you can walk out of it, feeling sort of fascinated and disturbed by it. Part of it is that it has aged well, the message has gotten even stronger and the violence is very realisitic. Plus the humor makes it a classic black comedy. I mean the scene with the black woman fending off a mugger with a hair pin or the construction workers chasing a mugger is inspired humor, as is, the part where Bronson says "By sundown, detective?" But it also has some strong moments like the part where his son in law says "Civilized" when Bronson answers "What do we call ourselves who run away from problems" (it was something like that)

    The reason I like Death Wish is because it's the most fascinating. Another one that is also pretty good for politics is Vigilante with Fred Williamson and Robert Forster. This was even arguably more interesting because Willaimson represented a black guy's point of view who says, So how do we handle out problem with muggers, we move to the suburbs what do we do when they follow us to the suburbs? We gotta fight them here now or we'll never be safe" Which I thought was interesting. Death Wish is a better film though.

    I also think The Punisher with Dolph Lundgren has a lot of interesting politics too, As does Cobra (which is pretty much a vigilante movie) or Avenging Force which has Death Wish style flavor as well. As well as Southern Comfort.

    In fact, You could argue Death Wish, Dirty Harry and the rest of movies mentioned were the flipside of the backwoods movie fears like Last House On The Left, Hills Have Eyes, Deliverance and (the terrible) I Spit On Your Grave.

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  20. I'll have to check out that review Film Connoisseur, that sounds good. Definitely, Bronson rules, and this movie is one of his best. And the idea of seeing Death Wish 5 in the theater is too awesome for words-- I'm jealous.

    I was waiting for the Kenner comments, and I was getting a little worried when I didn't see them. I haven't seen four or five in forever, and I know we agreed on 3, and I think we both see 3 in exactly the same way, as a great Cannon flick that just happens to be called Death Wish 3.

    I need to see Vigilante again, because, as an adult, I see more of the nuance in Death Wish, especially in Bronson's acting. The humor you talk about was really great too, and it is amazing that, as different as we are now as opposed to 1974, we're really still quite similar. This is the kind of film that doesn't need to be remade today, because it's still relevant in its original version.

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