Top critical review
Paul Kersey As Modern Everyman
on July 10, 2002
Crime in the streets and the police reaction to it is always not far from front page news. Occasionally, Hollywood thinks that it has a tap on the pulse of urban America, and in 1974, that tap was DEATH WISH. The popular perception then was that the streets of every large urban city was a battleground where the only ones armed were the bad guys. Crime rates were up, and the liberal approach to reducing that crime was down. Director Michael Winner constructed a tale that was more fairy tale than cinema veritee. In this movie, Charles Bronson plays architect Paul Kersey, who is your basic liberal good guy, educated, kindly, affluent, having a loving family. Whenever any director shows a family man in happiness, you know that you are being set up for the flip side of one of Grimm's most somber of fairy tales. His wife is killed and his daughter gang-raped by a bunch of greasy hoods, one of whom is Jeff Goldblum, before he became a good guy himself. This attack scene is a graphic one, designed to make the liberal urban dweller shake in a way that would not be duplicated until the equally nauseating I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. Kersey reacts with the way that conservatives truly believe that any liberal would have reacted, grief followed by a desire for revenge. Kersey is meant to be seen as the very definition of a conservative: a liberal who has not been mugged. Well, in this movie, Kersey has the equivalent. His family is torn apart, so he spends the rest of the film, first attracting muggers with his apparent helplessness, then blowing them away with a handgun. With each mugger he eliminates, the audience is manipulated in cheering him and damning them. The muggers are easy to spot in that nearly all are minorities and wear the required muggers outfits: sweat band, dirty shirt, and leather jacket. He keeps killing them until the police, symbolized by Vincent Gardenia, find out that he is the vigilante and gives him the Wild West order: get out of town by sundown. Kersey does only to continue his vigilante ways in yet another urban city.
DEATH WISH bears no more relation to the reality that was New York in 1973 then Bill Clinton to moral rectitude in 1996. What Micheal Winner wanted was a movie to appeal to the basest instincts of those who are caricatured in the film as total buffoons. Do you remember the scene in which a hard hat smilingly describes how he and his fellow hardhats beat the bejesus out of a greasy looking mugger? That moronically smug look on his face is the visual equivalent of the kind of urban dweller that Michael Winner hoped would buy enough tickets to make him a rich man. He succeeded. Calm rationality lost.