He wants the filth off the streets. If the police can't do it, he will... his way.
"People like the idea of revenge. You ever hear the expression 'The best revenge is living well'? It means supposedly the best way to get back at someone is just by being happy and successful in your own life. Sounds nice. Doesn't really work on that Charles Bronson-kinda level, you know what I mean? Those movies where his whole family just gets wiped out by some street scum. You think you could go up to him, 'Charlie, forget about the .357. What you need is a custom-made suit and a convertible. New carpeting, french doors, a divan! That'll show those punks!'"
Death Wish is a 1974 action-crime-drama film based on the 1972 novel by Brian Garfield (who also wrote Death Sentence). The film was directed by Michael Winner and stars Charles Bronson (the actor, not the prisoner).The film was a major commercial success and generated a movie franchise lasting four sequels over a twenty-year period. The film was denounced by critics as advocating vigilantism and unlimited punishment to criminals (and by Garfield - see Creator Backlash below), but it was seen as echoing a growing mood in the United States as crime rose during the 1970s.The Death Wish Pentalogy:
Death Wish (1974) - The movie that started it all, where New York architect Paul Kersey has his world shattered forever when his apartment is attacked by three vicious punks, who murder his wife and rape his daughter. After being sent to Arizona by his boss to meet with a client, Kersey takes an interest in guns and eventually has one slipped into his bag by the client as he's preparing to return to New York (this film was made back before things like hijackers and airline security were an issue). Upon his return, Kersey starts dispensing justice to the scum on the streets, shooting down any mugger that tries to rob him. The police want him arrested, but the public are behind him, glad that someone's doing something to clean up the streets. Kersey is eventually asked to leave New York to avoid prosecution, much like the Old West vigilantes of long ago.
Death Wish II (1982) - Paul Kersey and his daughter settle in Los Angeles. After an incident with muggers in an amusement park, brutality hits too close to home again when the muggers attack his new home, and Kersey's poor daughter is raped again along with his housekeeper before both of them are killed. Unlike the last movie, Kersey doesn't target random muggers this time, instead focusing his wrath upon the five scumbags who victimized him and his family.
Death Wish 3 (1985) - Kersey returns to New York to visit an old buddy from his days in the Korean War, only to find him dead after another attack by gang-punks. He is mistakenly arrested for the murder, but the head cop offers him a deal: reporting any gang activity to him in exchange for being able to kill all the punks he wants. Kersey moves into the buddy's old apartment, where he and his neighbors are viciously attacked by the gang, and things escalate until an all-out urban war erupts in the final fifteen minutes, leading to Charles Bronson's biggest onscreen kill count ever. It is also the movie that popularized the Wildey Survivor pistol in .475 Wildey Magnum (and saved Wildey from then-imminent bankruptcy in the process).
Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) - Kersey returns to Los Angeles. The vigilante is unleashed again after the daughter of Paul Kersey's current girlfriend dies of a crack overdose, and her boyfriend is gunned down by the pusher who sold her the crack. After gunning down the pusher, Kersey is approached by a publisher who knows of the guy's death and wants to hire him to wipe out the drug trade by taking down two drug gangs. Kersey does what he does best and blasts both gangs to hell, but is betrayed by the publisher, who it turns out is actually an ambitious drug dealer under a false identity who is seeking to take over the local drug business and has tricked him into doing the dirty work for him. Kersey's girlfriend is kidnapped by the Big Bad's men, and the stage is set for a final showdown.
Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994) - Kersey returns to New York again, this time planning to settle down with a new girlfriend. But the girlfriend is involved in a mob case involving her ex-husband, a vicious mobster against whom the police want her to testify. When the mobster's goons disfigure her in a bid to keep her from testifying, Paul is warned by the cops not to return to his vigilante ways. But things go straight to hell when the girlfriend is gunned down, the mobster is "cleared" of all charges, and the girlfriend's daughter is kidnapped despite Kersey's best efforts to protect her, and Kersey must take the law into his own hands one more time for a final showdown.
Bittersweet Ending: Death Wish 4: The Crackdown ends with Paul having killed the bastard who manipulated him into doing his dirty work, but having lost both his girlfriend—again—and her daughter in the bargain. What's especially bad is that despite the dangerous situation, it looks as though his girlfriend might make it, only to be killed off at literally the last minute.
Black Dude Dies First: In 3, Paul sets a trap for some gang members using a car as bait. Later, two gang members try to steal it, one of them is black, the other one is white. When they threaten Kersey, the black one gets shot first.
In V, the first person to die in the film is Reg, a black employee who works for Olivia Regent. TommyO'Shea finds out that he talked to the police, he and the Paconi Brothers find Reg and torture him in retaliation. Sal and Chicki burn his hands and his face with a shirt presser. After that, Sal kicks Reg twice before Chicki takes out a gun and kills him by shooting him execution style.
California Doubling: Although unmentioned in the film's end credits, some of Death Wish 3 was filmed in London rather than New York.
Cartwright Curse: One of the series' most notorious traits. See Disposable Woman entry below. About the only woman close to Kersey who DOESN'T end up dead is his girlfriend in the second film and even then, she leaves him after finding out that he's a vigilante.
Delicious Distraction: In V, Chicki Paconi has a huge liking for canolis, which unfortunately leads to his downfall, in which he is killed when Kersey sprinkles cyanide all over the canoli that he is eating.
Disposable Woman: Kersey's wife in the first film, his daughter in the second, girlfriends in the third, fourth, and fifth films, numerous non-Kersey women in all films — basically, if you're female and hang around Paul Kersey, you're pretty much screwed.
Subverted with his girlfriend in the second film. She still disappears after breaking up with him (after finding out that he's a vigilante), but at least she's alive.
Grievous Bottley Harm: In V, Kersey breaks a bottle and uses it to cut Tommy O'Shea's face in retaliation for what one of O'Shea's goons had done to Kersey's girlfriend earlier in the film.
Hand Cannon: Paul's friend "Wildey" (more specifically, the .475 Wildey Magnum) from 3. Currently the most powerful semiautomatic handgun in the world.
I Warned You: The fake Nathan White's last words after he kills Kersey's girlfriend in 4, and just before he himself is killed.
White: "I told you...I warned you I'd kill her! I warned you! I'd kill her..." [Paul fires a grenade which obliterates White]
Ironic Echo: In V, when Kersey kills Chicki Paconi by poisoning his canoli, the last words that Chicki hears are the words that he said to Kersey in their first encounter:
Paul: "You got a problem?" [Paul pushes Chicki's face onto the table]
Karma Houdini: The three muggers and rapists from the first film, who start Kersey's road toward vigilantism, are never caught by the cops or killed by Kersey. In the sequels however, the trope is averted, in which, if you're a bad guy, then you're not leaving the movie alive.
Man on Fire: Three people burn to death in 3 during the climactic urban war between the criminals and the locals.
The Quincy Punk: Like most Cannon Films, the thugs are primarily punks and all punks are thugs.
Rape as Drama: Kersey's daughter was raped and his wife was killed, all for drama and motivation. Also the rape/murder is played for exploitation turn-on, which makes all of the subsequent action seem more than a bit hypocritical. Paul's daughter is raped again during the second film (along with Kersey's housekeeper) before both are killed, and in the third film, Maria, one of Kersey's friends, is raped and killed despite Kersey's best efforts to protect her.
Reality Ensues: Only in the first film where the attackers are never seen again. Sadly with that type of crime, and forensics at the time, the only evidence would be the description of a traumatized victim. Modern day audiences likely assume the climax will be a confrontation with the guys who raped his daughter and murdered his wife, but how would he even know who they are?
Roaring Rampage of Revenge: When the first movie starts, Kersey is essentially a pacifist until his wife is murdered and his daughter raped into catatonia, then turns violent against criminals. While all five of the films have Kersey seeking vengeance, Death Wish II is perhaps the one that most resembles this particular trope.
Sequel Escalation: The bodycount per film for the first four films rise as the series progress.
Showgirl Skirt: The fashion show in the fifth film starts with some women wearing sheer skirts with their corsets.
Sock It To Them: In the first film Kersey gets $20 worth of rolled quarters, puts them into a sock, practices swinging the flail around in his apartment, and then carries it around during the day. Soon someone with a knife tries to mug him, and a single hit makes the other guy drop the knife and try to run away, go headfirst into a wall, and then stumble off.
Too Dumb to Live: Similar to Tempting Fate, the fake Nathan White and the end of 4 proves to be this when he kills Kersey's girlfriend, and then fails to do a good job at not getting killed by taunting Kersey by saying that he had warned him. Rubbing it in after killing Kersey's girlfriend definitely was not going to make him put the gun down.
Vigilante Man: Death Wish is probably the Trope Codifier for this character type in media. Also an Unbuilt Trope as the film pioneered the urban vigilante concept, but it also showed how dangerous it would be.
A decade after the film was released, a real life urban vigilante incident took place in New York; the Bernie Goetz case.
What Happened to the Mouse?: In the third movie, Kersey's friend Rodriguez leaves in the middle of a town-wide gunfight to reload his zip gun. He doesn't appear again. He's probably deader than a doornail.
Yank the Dog's Chain: The ending of 4, when Paul approaches the fake Nathan White, who is holding Paul's girlfriend. When White shoots at Paul, Paul's girlfriend makes a run for it, and it looks like she'll make it, only for White to shoot her in the back like a coward.