Film: Death Wish

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).

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.

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 in Trivia), but it was seen as echoing a growing mood in the United States as crime rose during the 1970s.

The Death Wish Pentalogy:

For a character with a death wish, see Death Seeker.

These movies provide examples of:

  • Attempted Rape: There are some rapists that Paul manages to shoot before they can start anything.
  • Badass: Paul. By the series end he's a Badass Grandpa too.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Paul is a pacifist, but he learned to use guns during his younger years as a combat medic in the The Korean War. And it shows.
  • Big Bad: Averted, as there is no singular main villain.
  • The Big Rotten Apple:Both the original film and its New York-set sequels depict a city where violent crime is so out of control that citizens are forced to take vigilante action.
  • Cartwright Curse/Disposable Woman: Kersey's wife. One of the series' most notorious traits—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.
  • 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.
  • The Lopsided Arm of the Law: The movies showcase repeatedly that the police is incapable of doing anything about the immense crime waves assaulting the cities and has all but called it quits, but put out all the stops to hound anybody who tries to fight back (even out of their jurisdiction). On the first movie they are afraid that the vigilante may escalate or that people fighting back may force the crooks to become even worse, but on the rest of the films this is shown as them not wanting to be shown over, thinking It's Personal, or wanting to get rid of a problem because they are Dirty Cops.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: After Paul kills his first man, he is so horrified by what he just did that he runs home and throws up. He quickly becomes more comfortable with killing.
  • New York Subway: Two muggers try to rob Paul on the subway. They do not survive.
  • Phallic Weapon: While at a gun range in Tuscon, Arizona with his client Ames Jainchill, Kersey mentions he was a Conscientious Objector during the Korean War.
    Ames: I suppose you're one of those liberals who think our guns are a substitute for our penises.
    Kersey: Maybe it's true.
    Ames: Maybe. But this is gun country.
  • 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.
  • Rated M for Manly: The original film follows the transformation of Paul Kersey from pacifist to killer who deals his own brand of justice. And the entire series depicts the tough guy vigilant as a manly hero.
  • 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 Hook: The movie ends with Kersey, at an airport, pointing his finger at some muggers like a gun while smiling.
  • Sock It To Them: Kersey gets 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.
  • Unbuilt Trope: The Death Wish saga pioneered the urban Vigilante Man concept, but it also showed how dangerous it would be.
  • 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.
  • Wretched Hive: A New York City were gangs and solitary muggers roam the streets and the subways. Citizens live in fear and the police seem to offer no safety.