A resident of an apartment building in a crumbling section of Brooklyn that has been overrun by a punk-style street gang, Charley is scared. He served in the military, he fought in World War II and the Korean War, he’s a man who stands up for himself and won’t give in to the demands of the gang, who fleeces “protection money” from the people living in their territory… But it’s been thirty years since he was on a battlefield. He’s an old man now, and he can’t take on these young punks by himself. So he writes a letter to his old war buddy, Paul Kersey.
Kersey was a conscientious objector in Korea, but his outlook on violence has changed greatly since those days. Death Wish (1974) showed his transformation from pacifist to vigilante after the murder of his wife and assault of his daughter. Death Wish II (1982) showed him returning to his vigilante ways two years later when a gang raided his home, attacked him, assaulted and killed his daughter and his maid. Death Wish 3 is set ten years after the events of the first film, and in the years between II and 3 he has continued picking off the occasional criminal, killing four gang members in Kansas City, two muggers/rapists in Chicago, and possibly more we don’t hear about.
Kersey rolls into Brooklyn to find that he’s too late to help his pal Charley. Members of the gang have busted into his apartment and beaten him so badly that Charley dies in Kersey’s arms as soon as he arrives. When the police show up, they arrest Kersey as a suspect. He’s taken to a precinct run by a Lieutenant Shriker… and Shriker doesn’t do things by the book. He and his men have no concept of police brutality, showing no hesitation in trying to beat some answers out of Kersey. Shriker recognizes him, he was on the force during Kersey’s original vigilante spree in New York, and at first he intends to keep him off the streets, not charging him with anything but planning to keep him locked up indefinitely. This, of course, does not sit well with lawyer Kathryn Davis, but Shriker doesn’t care.
Most of the guys Kersey shares a cell with are regular criminals that he has no problem knocking around when they step up to him. But there’s one guy in the cell who clearly has more to him. He observes how Kersey handles himself, he waits, then he convinces his fellow prisoners to attack Kersey together for him so he can get in some hits while he’s down. This guy is named Fraker, he’s the leader of the gang in Charley’s neighborhood, and he’s released soon after the attack on Kersey. As he leaves, he says he’s going to dedicate the murder of a little old lady to Kersey.
Shriker’s attitude toward Kersey changes when his men report that, despite their increased presence in the Brooklyn neighborhood Fraker calls home, crime rates continue to rise in that area. The police can’t handle the situation on their own… so maybe Kersey can help. Shriker releases Kersey and tells him to go “do this thing”, all he asks in return is that Kersey report back to him about the criminal activities he witnesses and let the cops get some arrests in the midst of him blowing away bad guys.
Paul Kersey is back in action, and this time his actions are police sanctioned.
Kersey uses his old tactics of finding ways to bait the criminals into situations where he can gun them down. He buys a nice car and parks it outside the apartment building. When he catches two guys trying to strip its parts, he shoots them dead and nonchalantly returns to his dinner. He walks the streets carrying a camera loosely at his side. When it gets nabbed, he blasts the thief in the back. To keep the apartment building safe, he sets up booby-traps like a bed of nails beneath a window, or a spring-activated board that will swing up and smash a person in the face. After the board has been set off and done its job, Kersey finds an unlucky punk’s two front teeth embedded in it.
When he’s not dealing out his personal brand of justice, Kersey befriends some of the locals, including a man named Bennett who served with Charley in World War II. There’s also a young couple, Rodriguez and his wife Maria, and it’s Maria who suffers this film’s sexual assault, seemingly a Death Wish prerequisite at this point. Kersey even has some free time to spend on a romantic subplot when Kathryn Davis shows some interest in him. That doesn’t work out very well for her at all.
The neighborhood is soon getting nicer and more relaxing to live in. Kersey has the public’s support. But it isn’t long before Fraker’s gang retaliates, building to an all-out street war in the final act. Luckily, Charley had some military grade weapons stored away that come in handy in such a situation.
The first film’s producer Dino De Laurentiis had just sat on the Death Wish rights for nearly a decade after the success of the 1974 movie. If he wasn’t going to use them, Cannon Films were going to. The success of Death Wish II proved they had bought themselves a franchise, and they got Death Wish 3 to screens as soon as possible afterward.
To craft the screenplay, Cannon hired Don Jakoby, co-writer of the hi-tech 1983 thriller Blue Thunder, who they also had working for them on the Tobe Hooper films Lifeforce and the remake of Invaders from Mars. Jakoby’s script broadened the scope of Death Wish wider than ever before, turning the final sequences into an action extravaganza and turning Paul Kersey into an “urban Rambo” battling an army of gang members with weapons like a 30 caliber machine gun and a rocket launcher.
Charles Bronson, although not happy with the script, returned to the role of Paul Kersey, and Michael Winner, director of both previous films, signed on to direct. However, Winner had gotten his fill of making these movies serious and grounded, if they were going to do this for a third time he decided it was time to go a little gonzo. This is evident in the much lighter tone of the movie compared to parts 1 and 2. There are still dark scenes and horrific crimes, but for the most part Death Wish 3 cruises along lightheartedly on the coolness of Bronson as Kersey. Strikes against the gang members are played for laughs (like the teeth stuck in the board) and it’s all in good fun. This is pure entertainment, meant to elicit cheers from the audience and wow them with the weapons Kersey gets his hands on. Winner reworked Jakoby’s script so much during production that Jakoby ultimately chose to have his name taken off the movie, replaced by the pseudonym Michael Edmonds.
Winner’s new approach to things also shows through in the stylized look of the street gang. These aren’t just your average hoodlums, these punks look like they just stepped out of The Warriors or even The Road Warrior, and their surroundings fit that style. Set in Brooklyn but largely filmed in London, Death Wish 3 looks like it was made on some post-apocalyptic backlot.
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, who composed the score for Death Wish II, again received a “music by” credit on Death Wish 3, but don’t let it fool you. Page didn’t record any new music for part 3, every bit of the score that is Page’s was re-used tracks from part 2. Some new tracks were provided by Mike Moran and his synthesizer, and the fact the Jimmy Page’s credit appears during a sequence scored by Moran’s jazz lounge meets disco via electronica monstrosity of a title theme is shameful. I mean, that cheeseball music does work fine for a mid-’80s flick, but it sure isn’t Jimmy Page.
Bronson may not have been happy that Paul Kersey had become a shoot ’em up action hero, but if the series was going to continue, that is exactly the direction it needed to go into. Death Wish 3 isn’t a great film like the 1974 original, but it is a very fun movie to watch, and I’d much rather give 3 a view than the overly dark retread that was part 2.