Paul Kersey, a mild-mannered architect (Charles Bronson), and his wife (Hope Lange) have been vacationing in sunny climes, but when they return to their home in New York City they find the weather is cold and the reception from the locals is chillier. Kersey laughs off the news that crime is spiralling out of control, seeing it as a result of poverty and something to be concerned with on a political level, but when it strikes close to home he is forced to take the law into his own hands and become a vigilante.
Scripted by Wendell Mayes from Brian Garfield's novel, Death Wish features Bronson's most famous role, if maybe not his best. Shortly after the film opens, Kersey's wife is murdered and his daughter is raped by thugs (including a young Jeff Goldblum - and you thought he was a nice guy) who break into their apartment. This scene is appropriately nightmarish, but after it occurs the film's tone becomes ambiguous, with Kersey being driven to his vigilante role almost reluctantly.
However, at the halfway point of the story all doubts fly out of the window and the film becomes a straightforward shoot-em-up, with Kersey being confronted by muggers every time he leaves the house. As if to prove that inside every bleeding-heart liberal (as he is labelled at the beginning) there is a, well, Charles Bronson struggling to get out our hero starts to feel he is on a justified crusade to clean the scum off the streets. Finally he is championed as a hero in the eyes of the public - a lot like the character was in real life - and allusions are made to him being the modern day equivalent of a gunslinger cleaning up this town for the decent folks.
He always assumes the muggers want to kill him for his wallet, as well - it seems that the only way to beat the criminals is to descend to their level, and being played by Bronson, it's no surprise when he does. There is a sop to those who would decry taking the law into your own hands in the character of Vincent Gardenia's detective character, yet he is set up as a straw man with arguments to match and we feel he has a grudging respect for Kersey before the finale - crime rates do go down after Kersey makes his mark on the city's conscience.
More interestingly, he never actually confronts the thugs that we saw at the start of the film, which only increases the paranoia, of course. Death Wish was released at a time when the New York City crime rate was indeed going through the roof, so it's little wonder it strick such a chord. As it is, it's an effective but problematic thriller where the excuses made for the hero's actions are more emphatically presented than the opposing view. Certainly it underlined director Michael Winner's reputation for unapologetically pushing the boundaries of violence in mainstream cinema, not that it was much of a reputation after some increasingly hamfisted efforts. Listen for: music by Quincy Jones. Followed by four increasingly unbelievable sequels, all starring Bronson, with only the first two sequels seeing Winner return.
Michael Winner was a fine director back in the day. Here, and on 'The Mechanic', he does a solid job. What went wrong? Watching any of the Death Wish sequels is like watching the work of somebody who's never actually seen a film before!