The original Death Wish is a smart and thoughtful rumination on what justice means in the seemingly lawless New York City of the 1970s. In the film, non-confrontational architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is pushed to his breaking point after some brutal thugs break into his home, kill his wife and rape his daughter. He decides to clean up the city’s mean streets through vigilante tactics, becoming one of the most notorious anti-heroes in the history of cinema in the process. Death Wish spawned four increasingly ridiculous (but, I will admit, still very entertaining) sequels that had Kersey battling everyone from evil punk rockers (the delightfully bonkers Death Wish III) to Michael Parks as a scene-stealing gangster in Death Wish V: The Face of Death who has, for reasons best left to burnt out screenwriters to figure out, based his criminal empire out of a mannequin factory in NYC’s garment district. (The less said about the Bruce Willis-starring remake, the better).
While the first Death Wish may have had some serious things to say about society, law, order, and chaos, the subsequent movies focused only on the latter to a cartoonish degree. (Perhaps best demonstrated by the opening of Death Wish IV: The Crackdown in which Kersey has slaughtered three people in the flick’s first five minutes*). These films follow the standard pattern of having one of Paul’s love interests be murdered, spawning him to once again take the law into his own liver-spotted hands. A noteworthy exception to this most reliable of formulas being in the fourth effort, which dispatches of his girlfriend’s niece at the beginning of the film before, spoiler alert, getting around to senselessly killing her in the last five minutes. So if you see Kersey on Tinder, you should probably avoid him.
I’ll spare you any pretentious deep insights into the psychological underpinnings of the Death Wish saga, as such musings are more at home in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma than on this entertainment-based blog. But I do want to raise an important question here: Is Paul Kersey cinema’s greatest serial killer? Non-supernatural that is, because Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers probably still have him beat. While the word “vigilante” is constantly thrown about in these movies, and he is even aided by the police most of the time, the fact remains that dude has a seriously high body count and is not so much off the rails as he is plunged into a valley far below, exploded and smoldering. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this video I found on YouTube that adds up all his kills:
116 murders. 116. Hannibal Lecter, eat your crazy psychotic heart out.
And these don’t even include the ones that are mentioned to have occurred offscreen as Kersey bounced from one trigger-happy town to another in-between each of the sequels. The lesson to be learned from all of this? That actors sometimes take roles that pay the bills, and also that Paul Kersey may be great with guns but he is absolutely terrible to be in a relationship with. Sheesh.
*It was a dream sequence, but still.
(An earlier version of this article originally ran in 2017 and it is being reprinted as part of our ongoing 10th anniversary celebrations).