Schlock Art is where truly tasteless, gleefully grotesque and insanely inventive works of genre cinema are celebrated with unironic fervor. Every other week, we highlight a title available for streaming you may have overlooked. This week, we finally touch on the Cannon oeuvre with the profoundly ludicrous Death Wish 3.
Available to stream on Amazon Prime.
One simply cannot write a column about great schlock without acknowledging the infamous Cannon Films. The now-defunct studio’s illustrious catalog of trash could constitute a fascinating column of its own. Alas, I was forced (for now) to choose a single entry. That film would be the lurid 1985 masterpiece Death Wish 3, an uncanny work of action sleaze and a showcase for Charles Bronson’s black hole of charisma.
Unlike every other franchise in filmmaking history, only the third entry in the cheap-o Death Wish series is essential. Director Michael Winner (peep the amazing title of his autobiography), who helmed the first three installments, basically remade his own film twice. With a trajectory similar to the Rambo series, the 1974 original is a competent crime thriller that traffics chiefly in mundane human drama with some garden-variety action to boot. The offputting second chapter found Winner doubling down on nihilism and leering misogyny to tiresome effect. Death Wish 3 wisely foregoes that approach in favor of absurd, cartoonish mayhem. There’s really no way to oversell just how insane it is.
Charles Bronson plays geriatric architect/vigilante Paul Kersey with a disinterested resignation that would make DTV-mode Bruce Willis gleam with pride (which is appropriate considering he’s portraying Kersey in Eli Roth’s upcoming remake). Much of the film’s charm stems from Bronson’s complete lack of it. Whether he’s chatting it up with the lonely war vet in his apartment complex or melting the heart of a woman one-third his age, it’s a thrill seeing other characters interact with this possible android as if he’s The Most Interesting Man in the World.
Among the film’s many admirable traits is its deranged depiction of New York. The neighborhood in which Kersey lives seems to be inhabited mostly by rapists and killers wearing Warriors-style garb and face paint. Those who don’t spend their time mugging strangers live shut away in their apartments in a constant state of fear. East New York, as depicted here, feels more like a Mad Max-style dystopia than anything resembling an actual city.
That exaggerated dystopian vibe also manages to make the moral repugnancy of Death Wish 3 go down a lot smoother, especially compared to the previous, rape-heavy sequel. At its core, this is a Reagan-era wet dream about a rogue white man cleaning scum off the streets with an enormous .475 Magnum. Yet the whole affair is so detached from our own world that it comes off as goofy rather than problematic. And hot damn, if Kersey isn’t exactly the Drano this gutter of a city needs. In fact, he’s so effective that the police chief gives him free rein to murder as many people as he wants. “Do your thing,” the chief tells him, “but you report back to us.” Cue a warbling synth as we zoom in on Bronson’s blank and distracted stare.
As is the case with all of these movies, most of the story machinations exist only to give Kersey a reason to start blasting away at criminal vermin. In classic Cannon fashion, the plot and characters are stripped to the bone in order to focus on delivering some good ol’ vigilante justice. The love interest here, who of course has to suffer an obligatory death at the hands of the ruling gang, has a laughably brief character arc. By the time she and our sex god of a protagonist are on their second date, they’ve already professed their love for one another, and only moments later she’s blown up in her car.
All of this would amount to enjoyably diverting, if unremarkable, ‘80s scuz if it wasn’t for the action set piece that takes up the entire third act. While many late-career Charles Bronson vehicles settle for him fumbling around a backlot and shooting scumbags as their climactic sequence, Death Wish 3 turns its final showdown into a full-on neighborhood assault. It’s a borderline-surreal display of violence that continually one-ups itself in bombast as Kersey uses everything from grenades to a rocket launcher to dispense his righteous form of punishment. It’s the Cannon equivalent of the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan and downright mythical.
Death Wish 3 harkens back to a simpler time in American cinema. A time when two coked-up Israeli friends could buy a failing movie studio for half-a-million bucks and churn out Z-rate franchises for talentless, but undeniably rad, action stars from Chuck Norris to a (judging by his performance) reluctant Bronson. While low-budget action cinema may be at an all-time high these days, there just doesn’t seem to be a group like Cannon producing no-frills junk with such reckless abandon. If the imminent remake teaches us anything, it will be that even a skilled, earnest fanboy like Eli Roth can’t produce quality schlock like a true hack.