AMC has been running all five of the Death Wish films this week. I caught “Death Wish III” and it prompted some interesting musings that I’m sure you’re excited to hear.
First, a little background on the series. I haven’t seen the original Death Wish in a while; my recollection is that it’s a grim and fairly realistic (for an action movie) vigilante justice flick. Paul Kearsey, the protagonist played by Charles Bronson, starts out as a purportedly liberal character, but after violence is visited upon his family by street thugs, he becomes a gun toting vigilante (not far removed from the origin of the Punisher character in Marvel Comics.) But the movie isn’t a explosive shoot-em-up of the Stallone or Schwarzenegger variety; the death count is fairly low, and Kearsey suffers substantially for his activities. The idea that violence, even legitimate violence, comes with a cost is pretty clear.
It’s also been a while since I’ve seen the second Death Wish , but my recollection was that it largely carried forth the themes in the first one, though in a slightly more cartoonish way.
The third Death Wish , as I was reminded last night, is an utterly absurd pile of cinematic feces, but delightful to watch. Gone is any attempt at subtlety, at nuance, at philosophizing about the nature of violence. In this film, Kearsey mows down seemingly hundreds of thugs with a Browning submachine gun, and dispatches dozens more with pistols and Vietcong style booby-traps. All the characters are cardboard stereotypes, and you can see the actors wincing at their dialogue. (All but Bronson, that is. And he’s actually a pretty good actor.)
Now, the entire Death Wish series, as well as the whole vigilante genre is obviously conservative (though a form of conservatism I think most people are somewhat sympathetic towards. Who’s really against napalming criminal scum off the face of the earth? Other than pinko commie liberals?) In the third Death Wish, I thought I saw a lot of the themes and concerns expressed by the tea party movement.
The first is guns. Now, I’m a Second Amendment guy, but I’ve never been much of a gun fetishist. And, at this point in American history, I think guns would be largely worthless were a totalitarian dictator to take charge and have at his disposal the U.S. Army and its nuclear arsenal. (I waffle on this point a bit; it is possible an armed insurrection — Red Dawn style — could make life fairly difficult for a militaristic government.) In Death Wish III, not only are guns being taken away from law-abiding citizens (though Charles Bronson appears to have no problem ordering a bazooka through the mail) but they are almost omnipotent in their ability to stop criminals. In classic action adventure style, every bad guy who shoots at Bronson misses, while Bronson almost always unerringly hits his target. And, he never hits an innocent civilian. So, guns are glorified, and any potential downsides are glossed over.
Death Wish III also captures the general sense of paranoia you see from some tea partiers. In the movie, the bad guys are a loose collection of Italians, Hispanics, black gangsta types and white punk rockers (including a pre-“Bill and Ted” Alex Winter!) — all led by some kind of Southern hillbilly with an inverted Mohawk. In reality, the likelihood of such disparate groups working together in a criminal enterprise hovers around zero. (I suppose if the movie were made today it would be Muslim terrorists, illegal immigrants and Black Panthers, all working in tandem.) On top of that, the overwhelming majority of the cops are corrupt idiots.
That said, I don’t think the film is really racist, in the same sense that I don’t think the tea party is really racist. You often see a liberal portrayal of tea party members a bunch of white guys sitting around raving about blacks and Hispanics (and some tea partiers had given ammunition to this image.) But I think your average tea partier doesn’t give much thought to race and basically thinks that if someone is a hard-working law-abiding citizen, they’re all right. And, in the film, Bronson is shown as an emancipator of the multiethnic citizenry of the ghetto he operates in.
I recognize, of course, that it’s ludicrous to analyze a political movement in the year 2010 by referencing a generally retarded action film made decades earlier. And, there’s nothing in Death Wish III that addresses issues like government spending and taxation (nor does the movie ever tackle religion.) Nonetheless, there’s a particular cultural view that is shared by many in the tea party movement, and I think Death Wish III does offer some insight into it.
It makes me realize that the time is right for a new vigilante justice movie. I propose, in the spirit of racial inclusiveness, that the protagonist be a middle-aged overweight black woman who travels around on a electric scooter armed with rapidfire machine guns and grenade launchers.