EDITOR’S NOTE: We originally watched this as part of a Death Wish week of movies on November 6, 2018. This might be my favorite Cannon movie. It may also be one of my favorite movies of all time, to be perfectly frank.
To learn so much more about Death Wish and Charles Bronson, I recommend both books by Paul Talbot, Bronson’s Loose: The Making of the Death Wish Films and Bronson’s Loose Again: On the Set with Charles Bronson.
Paul Kersey is back in New York City, despite being kicked out at the end of the first Death Wish. His Korean War buddy Charley has invited him to ask for help as his East New York apartment building has been under attack by a gang. Paul gets there just in time for his friend to die in his arms and the police arrest him for the murder. Inspector Richard Shriker recognizes him as the vigilante from back in the first movie, so he throws him into a holding cell with the leader of the gang, Manny Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy, son of Halloween 3: Season of the Witch bad guy par excellence Dan O’Herlihy). After a fistfight ensues, the villain gets released before Paul. If you think that’s the end of all of this, you haven’t been reading our website this week.
Shriker offers our hero a deal: kill all the punks you want, but inform him of any activity so that he can get a big bust and make the news. With that, we’re off and to the races in what is not only the craziest of the Death Wish movies, but perhaps the most bonkers movie you’ll ever see.
Paul moves into his dead friend’s apartment and into a warzone. He makes friends with the other tenants, including World War II vet Bennett Cross (Martin Balsam from Psycho), a kindly old Jewish couple named Mr. and Mrs. Kaprov, a young Hispanic couple named Rodriguez and Maria (a pre-Star Trek: The Next Generation Marina Sirtis who in real life is a Greek girl born in London). There’s even a young kid who continually walks into the path of gunfire. Obviously, this is a neighborhood made for Paul Kersey. It is, as my wife pointed out, Sesame Street where people die horribly.
Paul uses a car as bait for the gang, killing two who break into it. And he saves Maria twice, but the third time, the gang takes her and she soon dies in the hospital, not knowing the most important rule of Death Wish: if you are a woman, stay away from Paul Kersey.
That’s when Paul orders a .475 caliber Wildey Magnum, a gun that has the same muzzle velocity as a .44 Magnum at 1000 yards. This big bore handgun, as Danny Vermin once said, “shoots through schools.” He traps The Giggler by putting his new camera where he knows the criminal can steal it, then he blows him into another dimension with his gigantic handcannon. “I can’t believe they got The Giggler, man,” laments the punk rock gang.
Why this gun? Well, it was Bronson’s personal handgun in real life. According to the gun’s inventor and the film’s technical consultant, Wildey Moore, sales for the Wildey Magnum increase whenever this film airs on TV.
You know who else didn’t get that memo about dating Paul? Public defender Kathryn Davis (Deborah Raffin, The Sentinel), who dates our hero long enough for him to joke that he likes opera and for mohawked punk gang leader Manny to shove the car she is waiting for Paul in toward oncoming traffic, where it explodes in a giant fireball.
Shriker decides that enough is enough and he puts Paul into protective custody. But after the gang blows up Bennett’s taxi garage, the old man tries to use the ancient Browning .30 machine gun that Charley brought back from the war. Sadly, the ancient detective from Psycho is no Roadblock from G.I. Joe and he’s quickly beaten into near death by the gang. Paul is allowed to visit him at the hospital and quickly makes a break to defend his new friends once and for all.
There’s another big machine gun, so Paul and Rodriguez use it to kill every single gangbanger they can before they run out of ammo, just as their neighbors finally come to arms to help them. What follows is what can only be described as sheer orgasmic violence, as hundreds of stunts all happen at the same time. Grenades are thrown from motorcycles. Handgun blasts send people flying through glass windows. Fire is everywhere. And there’s Paul Kersey, walking cooly and doing what he does best: killing punk rock criminals of all colors, races and creeds, including a very young Alex Winter.
Finally, Manny almost kills Paul, but he’s saved by Shriker, who is wounded by the punker but succeeds in shooting him. Kersey calls for an ambulance just as Manny rises, showing his bulletproof vest. In a moment that will live in my mind forever, Paul shoots him dead in the chest with an M72 LAW rocket and sends him flying through the side of the building as his girlfriend (Barbie Wilde, the female Cenobite from Hellraiser) screams in pain, their psychic link obviously broken like Cyclops and Jean Grey on the dark side of the moon. The gang realizes they’re beaten as the cops show up in force, with Kersey simply walking away.
Death Wish 3 is many things, but none of them are subtle. It’s a sledgehammer blow to your sensibilities, a veritable tour of depravity and sadism. It’s also entertaining as hell. Bronson hated Don Jakoby’s (Invaders from Mars, Lifeforce and a frequent collaborator of Dan O’Bannon, with whom he wrote an unproduced script called Pinocchio the Robot that would have featured Lee Marvin as Geppetto!) script and the fact that they turned Paul Kersey into Rambo, but he got $1.5 million for starring in this movie. Frequent rewrites led to Jakoby taking his name off the film and he’s listed as Michael Edmonds.
All told, 74 people die in Death Wish 3, as detailed in this completely amazing article. They are stabbed, shot, run over, set on fire and more. They fall from tall buildings. They are thrown from tall buildings. And there’s a gang that combines all races and creeds — except old people — including white supremacists, punk rockers and lovers of reggae. It is the rainbow coalition of death. There was also a video game that lives up to the violence on screen.
The film also includes a rape scene with the victim played by Sandy Grizzle, who was the girlfriend of director Michael Winner. After they broke up, she reported to London tabloids that this was part of him treating her as a sex slave. Winner sued the News of the World tabloid and won.
Before you scoff at this notion, keep in mind that Winner spent six days filming the rape scene in Death Wish 2, a movie that took from May to July of 1981 to shoot. Also, following the allegations made against Harvey Weinstein in 2017, Winner was accused by three women of demanding they expose their breasts to him. Seeing as how he’s not around to refute the charges, let’s just move on.
Beyond these rumors, Winner was the kind of special individual that almost died from eating dinner — twice. He got the bacterial infection vibrio vulnificus from eating an oyster in Barbados, nearly losing his leg and his life. Then, years later, he’d almost die from food poisoning after eating steak tartare four days in a row. He died in 2013 at the age of 77.
Let’s ignore the gossip on Michael Winner and concentrate on how awesome Death Wish 3 is. Because wow, they literally can’t, don’t — and some folks would say probably shouldn’t — make them like this anymore.
You can listen to The Cannon Canon episode about Death Wish 3 here.