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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

THE GREATEST BAD MOVIES EVER MADE: Michael Winner's DEATH WISH 3 (1985)

Throughout the history of cinema there have been critically acclaimed films that made a shitload of money, thereby guaranteeing sequels, and while several such follow-ups are good, sometimes even eclipsing the flicks that spawned them — FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, A SHOT IN THE DARK, THE GODFATHER PART II, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and TOY STORY 2 spring immediately to mind — more often than not the sequels fall far short of the quality found in the original work. Among the lackluster movies that make up this reviled sub-category are such infamous works as EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, THE TWO JAKES, BASIC INSTINCT II, the entire gaggle of JAWS offspring, the unfortunate sequels to THE MATRIX, and of course the recent STAR WARS trilogy, but no sequel has ever fallen straight to the depths of cinematic Hell quite as spectacularly as DEATH WISH 3. And seldom has any other film, good or bad, been anywhere near as balls-out entertaining.

The original DEATH WISH from 1974 was a serious and rather depressing piece of early-1970’s social commentary that centered on a NYC architect, Paul Kersey (played by the venerable Charles Bronson, nee Buchinski), who is the most gentle of souls, once a conscientious objector during his military service, now a loving family man, basically the sort of guy who wouldn’t harm a fly. Then, one day while he’s away at work, a bunch of thugs (including a repellent Jeff Goldblum in his screen debut) break into his posh Upper West Side apartment and brutally beat and rape his wife and daughter. Kersey’s wife does not survive the assault and his daughter is so traumatized by the experience that she ends up a vegetable and is committed to a mental health care facility for life (or, more accurately, until she is again gang raped and eventually killed in the appalling DEATH WISH 2).

To take his mind off his family’s tragedies, the emotionally distraught Kersey accepts a design job in Arizona and receives a revolver as a token of appreciation from his client. Upon returning to the almost cartoonishly crime-ridden streets of New York, Kersey takes it upon himself to go on a one man spree of payback against the human vermin who make NYC life unlivable, first beating the piss out of a mugger with a sock full of quarters, then upgrading to using his gift pistol to blow away more scum, the press soon bestowing upon him the catchy moniker of “the Vigilante Killer.” Lionized by the citizens who soon begin to follow his example of fighting back and demonized by a police force that is pissed off because he makes them look useless, Kersey is eventually shot, but he survives and is given a pass by the NYPD who secretly banish him and tell him in no uncertain terms that he is never to return.

When DEATH WISH proved to be a hit the sequels took their own sweet time in showing up, the first of which opened in 1982. The early 1980’s were the dawn of the era of truly mindless action flicks, and the DEATHWISH series quickly threw out all semblance of quality and social commentary, opting instead for as much over-the-top graphic carnage as possible. DEATH WISH 2 is an exploitation piece of the lowest order, a celluloid slaughterhouse that offers up far more rape, violence, shootings and general degradation of the human spirit than even this hardened grindhouse junkie could stomach, with a sickening air of abject cruelty permeating the whole megilah. And providing the icing on this mountainous shit cake is Jimmy Page — yes, that Jimmy Page — apparently having forgotten the skills that made him a rock ‘n’ roll legend, providing a cacophonous mess of a score. Fortunately for bad movie addicts everywhere, DEATH WISH 2 made enough scratch to warrant a sequel three years later, and thus was the sublime ridiculousness of DEATH WISH 3 unleashed upon an unsuspecting public.

For his third outing, Kersey returns to “the City” to visit an old and utterly nondescript army buddy (read “cannon fodder”), but as is expected in this series the guy is soon rendered null and void by some of the many “creeps” who infest the neighborhood like two-legged cockroaches. When Kersey enters his dying friend’s apartment he is nabbed by the cops, who of course think he’s responsible, and he’s promptly brought before Shriker (played by Ed Lauter, veteran of about eleventy-jillion flicks), a hard-nosed detective who recognizes Kersey (apparently he saw the previous flicks) and roughs him up a bit just to show him who’s boss. Now, Kersey — hereafter referred to as Badass Grandpa — may be an old fart, but he ain’t taking that kind of bullshit, so he immediately socks Shriker in the nuts. That move lands Badass Grandpa in the holding tank, a foul enclosure just brimming with punks, junkies and creeps straight out of Central Casting.
“I’m old. I’m bold. GET USED TO IT, CREEPS!”

It’s all been cookie cutter stupid up to this point, but once Badass Grandpa hands out an ass-whuppin’ on an overweight creep by shoving his Rosie O’Donnell-sized skull through the bars, all bets are off. This amusing act of self-defense/gratuitous violence attracts the attention of Fraker (masterfully — and shamelessly — essayed by Gavan O’Herlihy, the guy who played Richie Cunningham’s older brother, Chuck, during the first season of “Happy Days”), a horse-faced white dude sporting an idiotic reverse Mohawk and what I guess is supposed to be some kind of scary neo-tribal war paint, but instead looks like he passed out drunk and a five-year-old drew on his face with some crayons and nobody bothered to mention it to him.
"Hey! Why the fuck are youse laughin' at me?"

Upon seeing Badass Grandpa in action, Fraker asserts his imagined status as the cell’s resident alpha wolf and gives the old coot a cheap shot to the ribs, after which he is released back onto the streets. But as he departs, Fraker looks Badass Grandpa square in the eye and advises him to watch the seven o’clock news because “I’m gonna kill an old lady. Just for you.” Then, apparently having forgotten about being pissed off at him, Detective Shriker releases Badass Grandpa, tells him how much he admires his work as a homicidal vigilante because he can’t stand creeps either, returns his gun and actually gives him carte blanche to wipe out as many punks/creeps as he feels like, all with the full clandestine cooperation of the local police department. Thus emboldened, Badass Grandpa takes up residence in his dead war buddy’s apartment and is befriended by Bennett (Martin Balsam, who was memorably offed on the staircase by “Mother” in the original PSYCHO), a tenant who is nice enough to introduce Badass Grandpa to the other residents, each and every one an ethnic/religious stereotype — the old ultra-Jewish couple, the earthy Hispanics, etc. —, gives a detailed who’s who of the local creeps, and shows Badass Grandpa where his dead pal kept a big, honkin’ military issue machine gun, complete with ammo feed (but strangely no tripod on which to mount the sumbitch). Ooh, foreshadowing!

Meanwhile, Fraker returns to lead his gang and resumes his kingship by savagely murdering the gang member who had filled in for him, an act I know would have certainly filled me with a sense of unwavering loyalty. Y’see, the creeps in this film would be right at home in some post-apocalyptic hellhole as seen in films such as THE ROAD WARRIOR or FIST OF THE NORTH STAR, what with their stilted lingo, outlandish hairdos and idiotic outfits that run the gamut from the generic biker/punk rocker gear to wildly inappropriate FLASHDANCE ballet togs, but they are completely out of place in any modern day metropolis, a point driven further home when we actually get to meet some of them. Other than Fraker, the most notable creeps are Hermosa, played with staggering non-menace by a pre-BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE Alex Winter (he’s the blonde one who isn’t Keanu Reeves, namely Bill) and “the Giggler,” an outrageous black dude/FAME refugee in a leotard who gets his handle from his habit of giggling when he robs or otherwise assaults someone. Seriously, you have to see these guys to believe them.

Equipped with his new info on the local creeps, Badass Grandpa befriends all of the residents of the building, listening to their tales of misery at the hands of the scumbags and formulating the required plans of action to deal with them; the ultra-Jews have been home-invaded through their kitchen window by the Giggler more than once — he even taunted them with “We’ll be back! WHENEVER WE LIKE!!!! Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee!,” the nasty so-and-so — and the imaginatively-named Maria (the Hispanic chick, played by Marina Sirtis two years before she irritated the shit out of us for seven seasons on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as Counselor Deanna Troi; thankfully she doesn’t have a single line in this entire picture) has been harassed to the point of near-rape by Bill, er, Hermosa until Badass Grandpa smacks him in the mouth with a convenient tire iron. I’m telling you, the ludicrous image of Alex Winter grinning like a Jack O’Lantern while plastered across Marina Sirtis’ windshield screaming “I’m gonna eatchoo, bitch!” as she drives like a maniac in an underground parking garage looks just like something out of a Wally Wood MAD Magazine illustration. I mean, how badly does an attempted rape scene fail when it elicits howls of belly-laughter even from the women in the audience?

Once he’s satisfied with his reconnaissance efforts, Badass Grandpa begins his urban renewal crusade in earnest and takes advantage of his police department free pass to purchase high-powered firearms by mail, weaponry such as a Wildey Magnum pistol that’s literally as big as your forearm, fist included.
Now THAT’S a gun!

He also rigs the tenement’s apartments with a variety of booby traps, one of which includes a wooden platform festooned with nails for the perforation of felonious feet, while another features a spring loaded two-by-four that explosively bashes would-be home invaders square in the mouth; when this trap goes off during Badass Grandpa’s meal with the ultra-Jews (causing the douchebag on the receiving end to screech like a banshee as he flees into the night), the diners rush to the kitchen and find the board sticking straight up next to an open window. As Badass Grandpa resets the trap, the ultra-Jews gape in shock, point at the board and ask, “What’s that?” Badass Grandpa smiles and says, “teeth!” We are then treated to a closeup of the board with what appear to be two bloody Chiclets embedded in the wood.

NOTE: at best the trap in question would just smack you right in the face, possibly breaking your nose, but unless the guy who got hit had been looking straight up at the ceiling and had his mandible surgically removed there is no fucking way that his teeth would end up in that plank. I’m sorry, but even for a film with this little grasp on basic reality this is a bit of a stretch.

Once the gauntlet is thrown, in short order our ancient hero renders several of Fraker’s creeps tits-up on the pavement, most hilariously in the case of the Giggler; Badass Grandpa wanders down the street eating an ice cream cone and swinging a very expensive camera like a streetwalker’s purse during Fleet Week, attracting the baleful gaze of the Giggler. The felon eyes Badass Grandpa and begins to follow him, finally launching himself at the old man, snagging the pricey Nikon. As the Giggler speeds away, looking over his shoulder and living up to his fey nickname, Badass Grandpa drops his vanilla cone and from out of nowhere produces his insanely huge hand cannon and ventilates the fleeing FAME refugee. The actor/dancer playing the Giggler makes the most of his character’s demise by not merely hitting the asphalt, oh no! This master showman goes out with a wildly inappropriate and fruity jazz dance fall and lands like he’s interpreting an autumn leaf daintily tumbling to the earth, it’s season over and its time done. Such artistic expression may be laudable, but it has no business being in this film. In fact, when I first witnessed that moment, I snarfed the beer I was drinking out of both nostrils and then sat there laughing like the village idiot. Meanwhile, people on the street stop what they’re doing and even hang out of windows cheering and laughing at the corpse of the Giggler — which in real life would have a hole penetrating his body, roughly the diameter of a manhole cover —, with one teenage onlooker raising the Black Power fist and screaming, “Right on, man!” to a smiling Badass Grandpa. And in a perfectly moronic coda to the sequence, the camera then jump cuts to the gang’s dank basement headquarters where we see Fraker’s thugs deep in the throes of mourning for their fallen comrade; much wailing and hand-wringing goes on, and then one of the creeps poignantly utters the deathless line, “They shot the Giggler, man!”

I’m telling ya, folks, not since Shakespeare have I been so moved by dialogue that truly expresses the depths of one man’s soul-wrenching misery.

Needless to say, Fraker ain’t having some old fart piss all over him and his creeps, so he decides to escalate the situation by having his boys abduct Counselor Troi and gang rape her; this scene could have been a hell of a lot worse, especially considering the misogynistic excesses of DEATH WISH 2, but it’s still pretty distasteful considering that it’s clearly meant to titillate a certain audience element, bares Marina Sirtis’ olive-toned tetas, and worst of all shows Bill, er, Hermosa leading the pack. After the boys have had their fun, Maria’s unconscious body is found and her husband and Badass Grandpa rush to the hospital to see her. They are immediately informed by the attending physician that during the assault Maria suffered a broken arm which caused a blood clot that dislodged and made its way to her heart, killing her just minutes before her visitors arrived.

At this point I would like to ask any of the medical professionals who read this blog if such a thing is possible; I’m no doctor, so I don’t know, but the offhanded speed with which that bit of info is delivered rendered all believability null and void for me.

Oh, and lest I forget, from out of nowhere comes Deborah Raffin in the thankless role of a police administrator or psychiatrist or some shit who is assigned to keep tabs on Badass Grandpa — NOTE: she’s not in on his arrangement with the local fuzz — and unbelievably falls in love with his Methuselah ass. This improbable plot element, one of the most improbable in a film where a talking, disco dancing tree would barely raise an eyebrow, allows Badass Grandpa to briefly have a love interest who you just know is going to get killed, thereby spurring the old coot on to greater heights of urban wholesale slaughter. The two instantly embark on a romance that we are supposed to deeply care about, despite the fact that the two of them have been together for all of maybe ten minutes, but wouldn’t ya know it? That ol’ meanie Fraker knocks out the police administrator (or psychiatrist or some shit) while she’s sitting behind the wheel of her car at a red light, kicks the car into gear, sending it careening out of control until it crashes and bursts into the kind of pyrotechnic display that no movie in this genre would be complete without, an event that is of course witnessed by Badass Grandpa.

Oh, it’s ON now, creeps.

Badass Grandpa returns to the apartment building with a mysterious package that he received in the mail, and then breaks out the gigantic machine gun that was in his dead war buddy’s flat, gaining Maria’s husband (and his homemade zip-gun) as backup. The two then literally wander the streets, blowing away overacting creeps willy-nilly, when, lo and behold, Detective Shriker joins in the fun and the three hobble about feebly, inspiring the once timid neighborhood denizens to pick up bricks, boards, baseball bats, the family cat, and damn near anything else that isn’t nailed down and fight back against the savage scumbags. The already ultra-violent streets are suddenly turned into an even more over-the-top living Hell as the locals give as good as they get in defense of their homes, and the skies literally rain bodies from the rooftops as Badass Grandpa and his boys blast the living shit out of everyone and everything in sight.

The sheer madness that ensues goes on for about fifteen solid minutes of our heroes staggering about like they’d stumbled into a living shooting gallery, each cutout target able to move, scream, cuss and bleed. There’s even an incredible bit where a creep hurls a Molotov cocktail through a tenement window, after which a shrill old lady’s scream is heard; shortly thereafter the old lady runs into the street, her torso ablaze, but the hilarious part of this is that she’s obviously portrayed by a dude and resembles Norman Bates doing his “mother” act while auditioning for the role of the Human Torch in FANTASTIC FOUR 2.

Eventually, shit gets so thick that Fraker gets on the phone and calls some unnamed thug, presumably of the same tribe or a regional affiliate, and politely asks him if he can “send some more guys.” We are then treated to a shot of a horde of barbarian bikers instantly roaring into the neighborhood, whoopin’ and a-hollerin’, whirling chains over their heads, and generally being a blight on humanity. The only way this image could have been any funnier is if there were a few random Vikings and pirates screaming, “Aar, me hearties” for spice.

This laughable display is greeted by Fraker’s punks with a stirring show of solidarity, namely with more whoopin’ and a-hollerin’, and whirling of chains over their own Mohawked/shaved/Afroed heads. Faster than you can say, “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” the mayhem somehow manages to get even more outrageous, causing Badass Grandpa to run out of machine gun ammo, so he falls back on his old, reliable Wildey Magnum. Yet more punks soon litter the streets with their splattered corpses and the locals appear to be gaining the upper hand. However, despite a valiant show of homicidal acumen, Badass Grandpa soon begins to tire and is caught unawares by a creep who stabs him with a trusty “shiv.” Luckily, Badass Grandpa had on a bulletproof vest during the stabbing, so he survives and makes it back to his dead pal’s flat, hurriedly rummaging for the mysterious package he received earlier. Just as he grabs the box, Fraker storms in to hold Badass Grandpa at gunpoint and taunt him about the fact the he too has on a bulletproof vest. Unimpressed and with a burst of speed that would have made the Flash envious, Badass Grandpa whips out the contents of the mysterious package, a handheld rocket launcher that he aims at Fraker, literally blowing him to chunky bits from five feet away (an act that would have also killed Badass Grandpa thanks to the confined space involved, but why quibble?) while simultaneously sending the wall behind the head creep showering onto the street below. Upon catching sight of this and somehow realizing that the pretty bits of hamburger littering the sidewalk are the earthly remains of their leader, the rampaging creeps, bikers, pirates, ninjas, Viet Cong, zombies and Shiite Muslims dejectedly lower their chains, knives, cricket bats, Panzer tanks and disintegrator pistols and drive off into the unknown from whence they came in a parade resembling the exodus scene from THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, only populated with nothing but total douchebags and no camels to speak of.

As the neighborhood around them burns and scores of stiffs festoon the place for as far as the eye can see, Shriker tells Badass Grandpa that he’ll cover for any difficult questions that may arise from his having turned the area into a demilitarized zone, so the old dude should make like a bakery truck and haul buns outta there. And so, like the hardened warrior he is, Badass Grandpa packs his suitcase and wanders off into the horizon, just as the pretty much non-existent-up-to-this-point squadron of police cars enters the post-fray. THE END.

Unfortunately, this overview simply cannot in any way, shape, or form get across just how maniacally insane this film is, so if you feel like you need a million volts of outright stupidity shot straight up your ass, run out and rent it right now. No joke, truly idiotic though it may be, DEATH WISH 3 is one of my top twenty all-time favorite movies, and I can’t urge you strongly enough to see it as soon as you can, and avoid the other sequels at all costs.

4 comments:

Velma said...

I think that, after this review, I don't need to see it, but ...well, yeah. That's movie making, man!

John Bligh said...

This, along with the Warriors, is one of my favorite idiotic "urban battleground" movies of the late 70's/early 80's. You've got to wonder, though, how unintentional the hilarity was. I mean, everyone involved MUST have been aware how stupid this movie was...

Bobby the Blue Baxojayz said...

That movie was a #1 choice for lounging around and guzzling beers to. I think I need to own it in digital perfection!

Chez said...

This is seriously the funniest fucking thing you've ever written Bunche. That said, I can't believe you put all that effort into this ridiculous movie.

That said -- although you yourself mentioned "creeps" several times, you neglected to mention that the word happens to be the very official designation given by the innocent slum-dwellers to the gang of Quincy Punks.

My favorite line in particular: "My. Kersey just shot one of the creeps!"

Cue triumphant music swell.