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Film / Death Wish

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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!'"

A 1974 action/neo-noir/crime drama film based on the 1972 novel by Brian Garfield (who also wrote Death Sentence), directed by Michael Winner and starring Charles Bronson (the actor, not the prisoner).

Liberal New York City architect Paul Kersey has his world shattered forever when his apartment is invaded by three vicious punks, who murder his wife and rape his daughter. After getting sent to meet with a client in Arizona, Kersey has his old interest in guns rekindled and eventually one gets slipped into his bag by the client as he's preparing to fly back to New York. On returning to the city, Kersey begins dispensing vigilante justice to the scum on the streets, shooting down any mugger who tries to rob him. The cops want him arrested, but the public are behind him, pleased that somebody is doing something to clean up the streets. Kersey is eventually forced to leave the city to avoid prosecution, not dissimilarly to 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. Denounced by critics (and by Garfield — see Creator Backlash in Trivia) for its advocacy of vigilantism and unlimited punishment to criminals, Death Wish was nonetheless seen as speaking to a growing mood in the United States as crime rose during the 1970s.

A remake of this film (and just this one, it is unrelated to the rest of the pentalogy) premiered on March 2018, moving the action to Chicago and now starring Bruce Willis under the direction of Eli Roth.

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

The Death Wish Pentalogy:

These movies provide examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: Paul's last name in the book was "Benjamin". This extends to Carol and doubly so as she was married in the book and had taken her husband's last name "Tobey".
  • Adaptational Job Change: Paul was an accountant in the book. In the film, he's an architect, because it was felt that no-one would buy Charles Bronson as a meek accountant.
  • Agonizing Stomach Wound: The first mugger Paul confronts, Thomas Leroy Marston, is shot in the stomach and thrashes on the ground in clear pain for several seconds. Paul stares at his handiwork and then runs off, throwing up once he returns to his apartment. The experience doesn't stop him going out the next night looking for more criminals to avenge himself on.
  • Anti-Hero: Paul. When you're a vigilante, you kinda fall under this category.
  • Berserk Button: Paul is an equal-opportunity vigilante crook-killer, but he is a lot more vicious when dealing with rapists, muggers and drug addicts, all of whom were responsible for his greatest tragedies.
  • Best Friends-in-Law: Jack and Paul get along well (a couple debates about what's best for Carol notwithstanding) and Jack calls his in-laws "Mom" and "Dad".
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Paul is a pacifist, but he learned to use guns during his younger years despite later serving 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.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: The first film approaches Paul's actions in this way. There's no doubt the people he's hunting are scum but Paul isn't portrayed as an unambiguous hero either, his actions coming as much from enjoyment as they do a desire to make the streets safer. We also see other people inspired by his example and going too far such as construction workers who beat up a mugger and leave him in emergency care. The film is neither a full blown endorsement nor condemnation of vigilantism.
  • Bland-Name Product: Time magazine gets reworked as "Tempo".
  • Boisterous Weakling: One of Paul's more conservative coworkers who is a supporter of the vigilantism doesn't take him up on a dare to walk though a bad part of town and see if crime really is down.
  • Brutal Honesty: The detective investigating the attack on Paul's family tells him how few leads there are, and that the perpetrators may never be caught, stating that he feels it would be unfair to give him false hope.
  • Cartwright Curse/Disposable Woman:
    • One of the series' most notorious traits—his wife in the first film, his daughter in the second, girlfriends in the third, fourth, and fifth films, numerous non-Kersey women—basically, if you're female and hang around Paul Kersey, you're pretty much screwed.
    • Men occasionally fall prey to this curse too—Paul's friend beaten to death by street scum in the opening of Death Wish 3, for example.
  • Clothing Combat: Paul's first weapon is two rolls of quarters in a sock that he wields as a flail.
  • Combat Haircomb: One of the New Yorkers inspired by Vigilante Man Paul Kersey is an old woman who stabs a mugger with her hatpin.
  • Cool Guns: Paul uses a nickel-plated Police Positive with pearl grips.
  • Coup de Grâce: Paul finishes off multiple wounded muggers who are lying on the ground.
  • Crapsack World: New York City and Los Angeles as depicted in these movies.
  • Crusading Widow: The entire reason Paul is risking his life by fighting muggers and gangbangers is because they killed his wife and raped his daughter.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: A construction foreman inspired by Paul who is being interviewed is confronted by the fact that the mugger he and his men captured had a broken jaw, two broken arms and cracked ribs.
    Foreman Andrew McCabe: Poor guy must have fell down.
  • Deconstruction: The first movie was one toward the "vigilante revenge flicks" of its era.
    • 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?
    • Being a vigilante is really dangerous. There are two separate occasions where Paul is seriously injured by the muggers he's fighting, once where he's stabbed, another where he's shot.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: The original film is a gritty, realistic, look at urban decay and out of control crime in major American cities during the era. The movie was such a hit largely because it embodied the feelings of many honest citizens at the time. In the end there is no dramatic showdown with the men who killed his wife and raped his daughter, they simply disappear into the city and Paul will never know who they were. There's little graphic violence, but what's there is very disturbing. Nothing in the movie could be defined as gratuitous. The sequels all follow all the clichés avoided in the original, which was more of a neo-noir crime drama in contrast.
  • Everything Is Racist: Amongst the people Paul overhears discussing his actions as "The Vigilante" in the first film is a woman complaining that the Vigilante must clearly be a racist, because he's killed more black men than white men. The film subtly treats her as a fool, with her companion immediately rebutting that there are simply more black muggers than white muggers, before asking if she wants them to increase the number of white muggers to increase racial equality.
  • Finger Gun: Paul Kersey does this to a group of thugs at Chicago's Union Station in a freeze-frame shot at the end of the first film, signifying that his days as "The Vigilante" are not yet over.
  • Gun Nut: Ames, a client of Paul's firm who takes him out to a target range is a fairly pleasant man despite his vocal disdain for liberals' opposition to guns. He ends up giving Paul the gun that he later uses in his rampages.
  • Happily Married:
    • Paul and his wife seem content and comfortable together during their vacation at the beginning.
    • Carol and her husband Jack seem to be, based on how concerned and supportive he tires to be after the attack (which makes his absence in the sequels more jarring and confusing for many). Paul himself and Joanna also seem to have a strong relationship.
  • Heroic BSoD: Paul's reaction after doctor announces his wife's death.
  • Hood Hornament: Tucson businessman Ames Jainchill drives a station wagon with a set of horns on the bonnet and a second, larger set on the roof.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: Paul's client Ames Jainchill, who wants to make something good, rather than just making money, and has very specific standards about the environmental impact of his development.
    Jainchill: I don't build a thing that's going to be a slum in twenty years, and I won't doze those hills. What I build conforms to the land.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Paul drinks a couple of time in the film to deal with the stress in his life.
  • I Was Never Here: Ochoa tells the patrolman who finds Paul and evidence of his crimes to forget he saw Paul’s gun.
  • In the Back: Paul doesn't hesitate to shoot fleeing muggers.
  • It Gets Easier: Paul is not very comfortable fighting criminals early on in the film. At first, he beats up a mugger with a sock filled with quarters, then goes home, taking a drink of whisky to calm his nerves. Paul also vomits after killing his first criminal. After this, he starts gunning them down without hesitation.
  • Karma Houdini: The three home invaders from the first film, whose vicious attacks on his wife and daughter are what start Kersey on his road toward vigilantism, are (presumably) never captured by the cops or killed by Kersey. In the sequels, however, the trope is averted; if you're a bad guy, then you're not leaving the movie alive.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: A largely unsympathetic version, as many muggers try to run as soon as Paul fights back. Aside from the first man, who Paul just hits with a bag of quarters, he doesn't let them.
  • Let Off by the Detective: Inspector Ochoa figures out that Paul Kersey is the vigilante who has been killing criminals, but the district attorney does not want the negative press that would come from prosecuting him. Because they are among the only authorities who know, Ochoa and the patrolman who found his gun tell Paul to just get out of town, and they'll bury the evidence.
  • The Lopsided Arm of the Law: The movies showcase repeatedly that the police are incapable of doing anything about the immense crime waves assaulting the cities and have all but called it quits, but pull out all the stops to hound anybody who tries to fight back (even out of their jurisdiction). In 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 in the rest of the films this is shown as them not wanting to be shown up, thinking It's Personal, or wanting to get rid of a problem because they are Dirty Cops.
  • Made of Iron:
    • The older subway station mugger is shot twice by Paul but still manages to run out onto the street before collapsing , then remains conscious for a while.
    • Paul pursues the last mugger in the park for at least several hundred yards after being shot in the back, before collapsing.
  • Mama Bear: Joanna trying to defend her daughter gets her killed.
  • Mugging the Monster: When Paul Kersey becomes a mysterious vigilante, anybody who approaches him armed will get shot.
  • 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 also looks a bit uneasy after shooting one of the alley muggers in the back. He quickly becomes more comfortable with killing.
  • Never Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight:
  • Never Mess with Granny: One of the people on the news inspired by Paul is an old woman who held a pair of muggers with a hatpin.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Downplayed; Paul fatally surprises criminals armed with Sinister Switchblades, but that doesn't stop him from getting injured himself, especially as his preferred tactic is acting as Schmuck Bait for a mugging, which means letting them get close and brandishing their weapons before firing.
    • Joanna and Carol are viciously (and fatally in Joanna's case) beaten by the home invaders.
    • The three alley muggers spend a long time hitting and kicking an elderly man they've already knocked down before they see Paul.
    • Andrew McCabe and his construction crew break several bones of a mugger they spot and overpower.
  • Older Hero vs. Younger Villain: The entire series, Kersey was always the old man and often faces punks barely out of their teens.
  • Part-Time Hero: Paul maintained his work as an architect up through and including the fourth film. Unusually for a plain clothes adventurer of 1970s and 1980s film, Paul Kersey did in fact maintain a dual identity/alter ego, since the general public did not know that Paul Kersey acted as the vigilante and Kersey continued his work as an architect while acting as a vigilante. In fact, his nightly prowls to find muggers to slay caused him to miss calls from business associates, who civilly asked him about this situation.
  • 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: (laughs) Oh, Christ, what a guest to bring to a gun club! You're probably one of them knee-jerk liberals; thinks us gun boys shoot our guns because it's an extension of our penises.
    Kersey: I never thought of it that way. But it could be true.
    Ames: Well maybe it is. But this is gun country.
  • Police Are Useless: See The Lopsided Arm of the Law above.
  • Pop-Star Composer: Herbie Hancock did the soundtrack.
  • Quick Draw: When Paul corners the final mugger from the park he tells the man to "Fill his hand." the guy is too confused and/or scared to do so though and Paul ends up collapsing of his wounds a moment later anyone.
  • The Quincy Punk: Like in most Cannon Group films, the thugs are primarily punks and all punks are thugs.
  • Random Events Plot: Most of the film is Paul getting into gunfights with random goons on the street, without much in the way of structure except for the subplot about the police trying to stop him.
  • Rape and Revenge: Subverted. Kersey goes after criminals in general after his wife is killed and his daughter raped, as they disappear into the city and he has no way of finding them.
  • Rape as Drama: Kersey's daughter was raped and his wife was killed, all for drama and motivation.
  • Rape Leads to Insanity: Kersey's daughter becomes unresponsive and catatonic after her violent rape.
  • 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 vigilante as a manly hero.
  • Realpolitik: The District attorney and the police commissioner are portrayed as being more concerned about the long-term impact of the vigilante killer than stopping said killer. They lie about the muggings going down to prevent a slew of vigilante copycats who might start killing anyone who looks bad. They also don't want the vigilante arrested to make a martyr of him.
  • Revolvers Are for Amateurs: Paul Kersey's first gun is a Colt revolver.
  • 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.
  • Secret Identity:
    • In the novel and its sequel Death Sentence, Paul went to elaborate lengths to maintain his dual identity as the vigilante. He knew quite well that the police would object to his sudden justice. In the second novel, Benjamin buys goggles, a fake mustache, and a fur cap to disguise himself.
    • The film series somewhat muddies this, since movie producers often demand that expensive name actors make their face completely visible, since they pay so much for them. However, the makers of the films did not completely ignore that Kersey had a dual identity. In the second film Paul Kersey buys an old pea coat, gloves, a longshoreman's cap, and a beat up pair of pants while prowling around as a vigilante. He rents a room in a flophouse to do first aid for his injuries. In the fourth film, the LAPD did not know the vigilante's identity. Also in that film, a man blackmails Paul Kersey into a meeting by announcing to him that he knew of his activities as the vigilante and would expose him.
  • Sequel Hook: The movie ends with Kersey, at a railroad station (Union Station, Chicago), pointing his finger at some muggers like a gun while smiling.
  • Sinister Subway: Paul gets mugged in the subway twice.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The people who rape Kersey's daughter and kill his wife are never seen again, but their actions cause the rest of the movie to happen.
  • Sock It to Them: Kersey gets $20 worth of rolled quarters, puts them into a sock and practices swinging and hitting it into his hand at his office, shaking it slightly in pain, indicating it works. 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.
  • Stress Vomit: After Kersey kills his first mugger, he goes home to the bathroom and throws up in his toilet.
  • Tap To The Head: Averted. Mrs. Kersey is realistically rendered unconscious for just a few seconds after a few hard punches to the head. When she comes to she’s horribly disoriented and barely able to move. Then a final blow proves to be fatal (It’s possible she would’ve died anyway.)
  • Trickster Mentor: Possibly without every meaning to (as while he guesses Paul is troubled by something he doesn't seem to know about the attack on his family), Jainchill gets Paul interested in shooting while at the same time getting him thinking about violent responses against muggers.
  • Unbuilt Trope: The Death Wish saga pioneered the urban Vigilante Man concept, but it also showed how dangerous it would be. The Violence Is Disturbing and graphic but infrequent, and the men who kill and rape Paul's wife and daughter are not sadistic arch-villains, they're a couple of random, violent mugs who just disappear into the night and are never seen again, as Paul has no idea how to find them. Basically, the first film avoided all of the cliches that its many sequels and imitators would go on to play unabashedly straight.
  • Urban Hellscape: The series falls into this trope, particularly the third film, which portrays the criminal gang as brutish and savage to the point that when protagonist Vigilante Man Paul Kersey kills them with military-grade weaponry, there is little dissension by the public (in fact, some other people fight back too, with him as their inspiration).
  • Vigilante Man: Paul Kersey 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.
  • Villainous Valor: While most muggers run if they have time as soon as Paul starts putting up a fight, the mugger in the park with a gun races after Paul in an effort to keep him from gunning down one of his fleeing partners (managing to wound Paul in the process)
  • Vomit Discretion Shot: Paul vomits in the toilet in the bathroom of his apartment room after killing a mugger who attacked him. It's his first ever kill.
  • Weaponized Headgear: One of the New Yorkers inspired by Vigilante Man Paul Kersey is an old woman who stabs a mugger with her hatpin.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Kersey becomes this, killing any thugs who menace others... granted, they have a terminal case of Too Dumb to Live going after him, but still.
  • What Measure Is a Mook?: The surviving mugger in the park runs after Paul in an attempt to stop him when seeing Paul pursuing one of his friends. After wounding Paul, he is then seen checking his other partner for signs of life before being scared off by both police sirens and an injured Paul.
  • Wretched Hive: A New York City where gangs and solitary muggers roam the streets and the subways. Citizens live in fear and the police seem to offer no safety.