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Categories: Features

Josh Merritt dives deep into the grimy pool of exploitation that is Death Wish 3, unearthing the secrets of its sordid fun.

Do you want to see a softcore porn version of Rambo interspersed with Dallas and myriad other 70s/80s American soap operas?

How about an episode of Sesame Street mixed with The Cosby Show, laced with Straw Dogs, followed by a generous helping of Home Alone for good measure? You’ve come to the right place.

From the start, it feels like the whole thing was shot through a telephoto lens smeared with Vaseline by some trainspotting voyeur, in between jobs since his last big gig on Dirty Harry.

If you don’t get where I’m coming from visually, the music will help fill in the blanks (a score provided by none other than Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame), which is so superb in capturing what the film is about (if anything), especially during the opening sequence; so creepy and ethereal, lurid and slimy, seedy as 70s/80s New York, sounding at times like a razorblade is being run along guitar strings or a demon dog spewing it hellish bile and rising up to wreak its revenge – it succeeds in putting you right on edge from the get-go, deep in its black heart, the heat of the moment.

‘Exploitation’ is the name of the game (and the genre), which this one has in spades.

3 is my personal favourite of the Death Wish series, although they’re all brilliantly satisfying and entertaining in a sordid, sadistic wish fulfilment-type way – I’d say the closest comparison to it is the experience of playing Grand Theft Auto.

Apart from Mr. Kimble (AKA Paul Kersey, played by Charles Bronson) the vigilante – clearly a sociopath or severely autistic if we are to believe Bronson’s portrayal, as his emotional responses are entirely inappropriate to and contrast with every situation, including talking with a man in his dying moments and calmly asking him, “What happened?!”

Perhaps he’s just become desensitised by all this mindless violence he keeps being exposed to!

There is the now-infamous ‘Arsehole Policeman’ stereotype created back in Death Wish 1, here represented by Inspector Richard Shriker (played by Ed Lauter).

He definitely has one of the best opening lines in the whole Death Wish series for sheer rubbishness. And I’ve never heard a white, middle-aged, middle-class character say “dude” so much. Seriously, check it out!

Is he a villain? Is he an anti-hero? Or just a dickhead? Part of the fun in watching is trying to figure out!

Let me put it this way: people just do not seem to like Paul Kersey. Probably because his face is so hard to read!

But no, here comes a right bastard; the real villain of the piece: MANNY FRAKER (played by Gavin O’Herlihy, probably best known as Chuck Cunningham in Happy Days), the controlling but petty, petulant leader of the local gang that’s been terrorising the neighbourhood, who apparently always wins – yeah, except at life!

He clearly has a chip on his shoulder, and that chip’s name is shit ginger hair and freckles (inherently scary in themselves, but not exactly qualities you would crave in the head of a crime outfit).

Oh, and if you ever wondered what Marina Sirtis was doing before grabbing the role of ship’s councillor Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation, you might get a perverted kick out of this one!

To be fair, I think most of the people in the Death Wish films deserved better than this.

Aside from Bronson, perhaps the best-known face to modern audiences will be that of Alex Winter (Bill & Ted, The Lost Boys), who plays a street thug named Hermosa (he’s supposed to be Puerto Rican), with such choice lines as, “Come here, bitch; I wanna EAT YOU!”

This role was his summer job between studies at NYU. Apparently the only reason director Michael Winner hired him was because Alex was born in England and had a British passport, so he came “really cheap”.

The film’s South Bronx set was built at the back of a hospital in Lambeth, south London. According to Alex, 99% of the film was shot in England.

Alex has plenty more great stories like that about Winner and the film, if you search ‘Alex Winter Introduces Death Wish 3’ on YouTube.

The more awkward, cringe-worthy sections of Death Wish 3 are when things take a turn toward the romantic for Paul, and very melodramatically! But thankfully, that part doesn’t last too long, as Paul’s usual luck with women kicks in!

If you’ve never seen a man excuse himself from a dinner table to go and plug a couple of punk creeps, or kill a giddy long-distance runner named The Giggler with an elephant gun, or experienced the convivial laughter shared by an elderly Jewish couple over the prospect of some sneaky sucker getting nailed with…well, a nail protruding from a plank of wood, this is that world.

The only thing keeping it even remotely relevant to us, the audience, is that the police are in the pockets of the bad guys and the law seems to work in their favour. In that sense, one might consider it prescient.

If you want a summation, two come to mind: dissociative voyeurism, and MTV violence – you’ll have a great time! RIGHT ON!

And in the words of the great beach bum extraordinaire, the inimitable Inspector Shriker: “I owed you that one, dude!”

Josh Merritt

Josh is a UK-based writer/filmmaker and video editor. He has worked with the British Film Institute, BBC Radio, Barbican. Named one of "five to look out for" by The Guardian. You can read more about him on his website joshmerritt.co.uk.

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Posted on Jun 12, 2017

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