Jeff Smith 2 p.m., Oct. 23
Grate Cinema: Death Wish 3 (1985)
Bronson in the ‘80’s has a delightfully-debased artistic ring to it. Some may call it Bronson past his prime, but did Charles Bronson ever have a prime to get past? Bronson carved a career as a stone-faced mute, a mound of permanent flesh modeling ears and a crewcut.
His rugged iconography was best put to use as "Harmonica" in Sergio Leone's crowning Once Upon a Time in the West. Even then one can detect a hint of Charlie's measured syllabic inflections that convert every line of his generally minimal dialog (declarative statement, command, greeting, you name it) into a question?
Listen carefully for the subtle lilt at the end of each sentence? Focus even more intently and you will discover that Brosnon, in this his third go-round as Paul Kimble (nee: Kersey), has an ith, as in "Ith thith Chatoth Land?"
The fun doesn't stop at his delivery and intonation. As time passed, his buzz-cut evolved into a shaggy, dry-look Sara Lee Swirl Cake combed by the wind Mariah. Ultimately, all spoofing began and ended with Chuck’s eeny-meeny-miney-moe taste in scripts. (Who read them to him?)
For a period in the seventies, Bronson held his box office own against Clint Eastwood. (Terence Young's The Valachi Papers and Richard Fleischer's Mr. Majestyk are thoroughly entertaining, reasonably well-made genre pictures and Walter Hill's Hard Times gave Bronson his finest hour.) Clint rode on to become his generation's most important actor/director while Chuck signed on for Cannon duty.
Some view Michael Winner's Death With as a well-timed anti-fascist manifesto. For me, it remains an easy way to frenzy a theater filled with pent-up misogynists through violently simulated rape. Same for Death Wish II, but with Part III the franchise had been sapped of what little shocks the originals had going for them, and ear-piercing laughter replaced what once passed for stunned gasps.
I have endured a dozen of Michael Winner's thirty-four features and feel confident in stating this man has not printed one watchable frame of film. He first directed Bronson in the hopeless Vietnam western Chato's Land (1972); of their six collaborations half of them have the words Death Wish in their titles (I-III, inclusive).
Throughout the ‘70's and ‘80's, Winner alternated Bronson assignments with the equally inept J. Lee Thompson who signed nine features including this series' least gratifying chapter, Death Wish IV: The Public Service Announcement.
(Dis)credit editor-turned-director Peter Hunt with the dubious distinction of directing Assassination, Bronson in and at his worst. You must experience the slapdash scenes of gang warfare in order to believe them. The director responsible for fine-tuning (along with fellow editor John Glen) the single greatest 007 action scene (the ski chase in On Her Majesty's Secret Service) reduced to throwing film in a Mixmaster. Chuck has that effect on colleagues?
It had been a decade since Death Wish made Dirty Kersey America's #2 urban scum cleaner-upper. Here's the set-up: after concentrated butchery in Los Angeles and various cities across the Midwest, Paul hops a Trailways bus to London (doubling for the Big Apple), longing to leave behind his socially defensible habit of serial killing. Cut to: Fossilized war buddy Charley (Francis Drake) being accosted in his home by what appears to be a third-rate punk band.
Deborah Raffin as the designated dead girlfriend.
Charley's acting, coupled with Winner's "are you sure there's film in the camera" direction instantly begins to weave a web of awfulness. (The full-frame DVD pressing leaves enough head-room to park Parts I, II and IV at the top.) No sooner does Paul de-bus than some thug in the depot broadsides him. It's a good thing Kersey was still in a good mood or he'd have broken this cheap excuse for foreshadowing like dry kindling?
Nowadays, with this kind of head-room, studios would sell advertising space.
Here's a novel approach: the establishment and identification of a fear-encased tenement's racial makeup through zoom shots of apartment numbers. 2C houses the young Hispanic family, 2E a single African-American woman, and if you are uncertain as to the "genre" of the Kaprovs, an elderly couple in 1E, a billboard-sized menorah takes up much of the foreground as we enter their domicile. Kersey arrives just in time to hear Charley's last rights before being held by the police for his murder.
Detective Shriker (Ed Lauter) proclaims himself the law and gives Kimball a breaking-of-a-constitutional-right to the jaw. (Make sure you study Kersey's mirthless mug shot pose.) Violence follows Kimball/Kersey like an unnecessary sequel? His mere appearance in the clink sparks a flurry of fisticuffs and a bald head wedged between iron gratings.
It's in jail where we meet inveterate psycho Gavan "Son of Dan" O'Herlihy playing Paul's head-hater, Fraker. A former Irish National Tennis Champion, O'Herlihy's film career was fated from the beginning. The fair-skinned, blue-eyed redhead played Chuck Cunningham, Ron Howard's soon to be inexplicably vanquished older brother, on Happy Days. (This television practice, in which a character seemingly pivotal to the show's trajectory is dropped with little or no rationalization, has been dubbed by internet wags, "Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.") O'Herlihy had a knack for landing roles in established series on their last legs: in addition to DWIII, he played heavies in Superman III and Never Say Never Again, Sean Connery's Bond bow-out. Loyal Opie remembered and later gave him a role in Willow.
Gavin O'Herlihy and his trend-setting inverted Mohawk.
With an inverted Mohawk -- a strip of skull-skin bordered on the east and west by hair -- for a calling card, Fraker sizes Kimball as his new favorite target. Fraker makes bail, but not before Shriker sics Kimsey on his tail. In a lightning fast turnabout, the detective suddenly professes buddyhood, encouraging the known sociopath to "do your thing, but you report to me." It's an even exchange: Kersey/Kimball does all the work; the bulls claim all the glory. Fascist fun for everyone!
Shabbas dinner with the Kaprovs.
PKK pays cash on the barrel-head for a pimp mobile and parks it beneath his bedroom window as bait. All this plotting makes a self-styled killing machine hungry. Paul invites himself to a hot bowl of Jewish soup at the Kaprovs and makes sure he arrives packing. Interrupting dinner banter on par with a Fred Harvey Oasis, he politely excuses himself from the table in order to kick the living crap out of a few hoodlums. Unscratched, he returns just in time for some coffee and.
Martin Balsam gets fitted for a hospital bed as Bennett, Charley's landlord-cum-vigilante's best friend. (Enjoy the ninety-foot ceilings of his full-frame apartment.) Good neighbor Paul teaches the tenants, all big fans of his work, how to transform their comfy abodes into mortal booby traps.
Nailed boards are placed beneath windows. (Bloody footsteps bring a smile to the Paul's crumpled face.) If those fail, why not try the spiked-and-sprung 2x4 trap? Finding a pair of bicuspid embedded in a sprung board causes the giddy Kersball to cry out in his best crummy Neanderthal, "Teeth-th!"
An air of payback sweeps the locals and it's not long before Kimball may be out of a job. Suddenly, a slap to a creep from an elderly woman packs the same wallop as pierced feet. The law proves ineffectual as victims' rights override the use of illegal firearms and the thugs transform the Kersey Arms into their war-zone supply depot. Tired of using expensive automobiles as inducement, Paul sets himself up as a fall guy. By now, even the simplest con on the block knows his reputation, yet the sight of dumb-dumb leisurely strolling with a Nikon in one hand and an ice cream bar in the other somehow screams "come and get me."
A rape in a Death Wish film is as unavoidable as chlorine in an Esther Williams musical. The wife of Paul's Hispanic henchman is brutally assaulted and murdered, another dame falling victim to the series' "death or disfigurement by association" mandate: anyone related to, in love with, or even pulling for Kersey will die or get shot, particularly the womenfolk.
Deborah Raffin, (adored in China, ignored in American) plays expendable social worker, Sue. Romance signals a welcome arrival in any later period Bronson picture if for no other reason than we get to see him act all lovey-dovey.
The Romantic Chicken Dinner Exchange (49:30)
Sue: "I made chicken. I hope you like it."
Paul: "Chicken'th good. I like chicken?"
On paper, the dialogue lacks voltage. Once you see Bronson's stung-by-a-hammer expression and hear the unfettered, lackadaisical delivery my reasons for referencing it will become blindingly apparent.
Paul Kersey-Kimball: a man and hith chicken.
A mail-order Magnum .45 arrives in Paul's P. O. Box, but leave it to Bennett to supply the heavy artillery: a .30 caliber Browning machine gun. It's a good thing the producers failed to tell Chuck not to hold the red hot barrel in his bare hand. He could have been badly burned?
One more awkward love scene before Fraker finds Sue alone in a passenger seat, belts her in the face, and aims the car down a steep embankment to certain doom. Suddenly the neighborhood resembles Little Fallujah: storefronts explode, flames ravage, and Martin Balsam, in perfect Popeye-ese, speaks without his lips moving. ("My shop! My shop!)
The final reel is virtually non-stop wholesale carnage, stunt doubles skedaddling, and breakneck zooms, all of which the Kaprovs cheer on as they watch the televised coverage.
With order restored, and about four buildings left standing, Kerskim grabs his pre-packed bags and slowly walks out of frame as credits roll. Thompson and Bronson would crap out one last sequel. None of Bronson's later films are any good, but when they are truly awful, they're amazing!
Watch it complete and uncut on YouTube. Viewer indiscretion advised!
This column is a revised version of a October 18, 2007 review from the now defunct Emulsion Compulsion blog.
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