To quote Roger Murtaugh, “I’m too old for this shit.”
It has been ten years since Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) left New York City and the place has gone to Hell. It’s no longer just muggers that you have look out for. Now, there are roving street gangs of directionless teenagers, terrorizing the elderly and forcing them to live like prisoners in their own apartment building.
One street corner now looks like a war zone, controlled by spiky-haired, face-painting punks who look like something from a Mad Max movie. Manny Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy) rules this street corner, supported by a gang that worships him as if he was some sort of god. Manny thinks that he is immortal but he’s just targeted the wrong person. The gang may think that Charley (Francis Drake) is just a defenseless old man but what they don’t know is that, when Charley served in Korea, his best friend was Paul Kersey.
The past few years have been busy for Paul. He’s killed muggers and rapists in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Kansas City and now he’s returned to New York City, to visit his old friend Charley. Paul arrives at Charley’s apartment just in time to witness Fraker’s gang murdering him. The gang flees and when the police arrive, they take Paul into custody.
While public defender Kathryn Davis (Deborah Raffin) tries to figure out why Paul is being held in jail, Paul has a conversation with Lt. Shriker (Ed Lauter). Shriker remembers Paul as being the New York vigilante and he has a proposition for him. Paul can kill as many members of Fraker’s gang as he wants, as long as he allows the police to take the credit and reports everything that he discovers to Shriker. Paul agrees.
In the neighborhood, Paul starts to put Fraker and his gang (one of whom is played by pre-Bill and Ted Alex Winter) in their place. In a scene borrowed from Brian Garfield’s original Death Wish novel, he uses a used car as bait to gun down two aspiring car thieves. When Paul gets a new gun, he tests it out on a depraved mugger known as the Giggler. Though some might call him a serial killer, Paul is soon a hero to the entire neighborhood. Though Charley may be gone, Paul befriends the other residents of the apartment. He shows the elderly Kaprovs how to catch anyone trying to climb through their window. He protects Maria Rodriguez (Marina Sirtis) from the gang. Best of all, he befriend Bennett Miller (Martin Balsam), a World War II vet who still remembers how to load a machine gun.
(Balsam and Bronson previously co-starred in The Stone Killer, though in that one Bronson was a cop and Balsam was on the other side of the law.)
He also finds time to pursue a relationship with Kathryn Davis. This is one recurring element in the Death Wish franchise that has never made sense to me. Paul always has a new girlfriend, despite the fact that almost every woman that he ever gets involved with ends up getting killed. Paul also only seems to go out with women who would be upset to discover that they were dating a notorious vigilante. In Death Wish II, he went out with a crusading journalist who was against the death penalty. In Death Wish 3, he falls for a public defender whose job is to provide legal counsel to the very people that Paul is trying to kill. After Death Wish 3, Paul would date yet another crusading journalist and, finally, the ex-wife of a notorious mobster. Maybe Paul should just give up and concentrate on mourning his wife.
Michael Winner returned to direct Death Wish 3 and, this time around, he imagines New York City as being a post-apocalyptic wasteland, full of abandoned buildings and murderous scavengers. Imagine A Clockwork Orange if Charles Bronson suddenly showed up to shoot Alex and the Droogs. As played by Gavan O’Herlihy, Manny Fraker is the type of seemingly indestructible bad guy who can actually give Paul Kersey a challenge, something that was missing from the previous films.
The other thing that distinguishes Death Wish 3 is that it was one the only film in the franchise to directly confront an obvious truth. Charles Bronson was 53 when the first Death Wish was released. By the time he made Death Wish 3, he was 64 and decades older than the typical action star. (As way of comparison, Clint Eastwood was 55 when Death Wish 3 was released and was already experimenting with less action-orientated roles.) By partnering him with Martin Balsam and the other elderly residents of the neighborhood, Death Wish 3 not only acknowledged Bronson’s advanced age but also took advantage of it. Death Wish 3 is a film where the old folks finally get to teach the young punks a thing or two. If the other Death Wish films were about one man fighting a lonely war, Death Wish 3 is about a community refusing to be silenced. The chance to put those kids in their place even seems to perk up Charles Bronson, who gives one of his best performances in Death Wish 3.
Death Wish 3 may have been roundly despised by the critics but it’s the best of the Death Wish sequels. It made a fortune at the box office so naturally, another sequel would follow.
Tomorrow: Death Wish 4: The Crackdown!