Death Wish 3/To Live and Die in L.A.

November 20, 2020

Foreigners who know the United States only from its movies must have some funny ideas about us. Take, for instance, some vacation-minded European catching a double-bill of two films that opened on the same day here: To Live and Die in L.A. and Death Wish 3. Any travel plans would be canceled in a second; the Middle East would look like a festive getaway compared to the United States portrayed in these movies.

Both films create worlds that are unrelentingly hellish – a by-now-familiar urban wasteland where punks commit whatever heinous acts strike their fancy, and decent folks don’t have a chance. There’s no other reality in these films; no goodness or tenderness, just squalor, hopelessness, and filth.

Of course, there is one “hero”: Charles Bronson, the gun-toting vigilante in Death Wish 3 (directed by Michael Winner, who also made the first two installments). As usual, the character’s philosophy is succinctly expressed: “With cockroaches, you’ve got to kill them all; otherwise, what’s the point?” (He’s speaking metaphorically, you understand; the cockroaches are intended to represent the denizens of a certain section of New York City.)

When Bronson returns to his old haunts in response to a friend’s call for help, he’s picked up by a cop (Ed Lauter) who recognizes Bronson from the good old days of vigilante justice. Lauter releases Bronson, admitting that Bronson can probably do more good than the police, hamstrung as they are by all those technicalities about fair trials and citizens’ rights.

This means Bronson can go directly into the streets and zotz as many scumbags as he can. He does this for 90 minutes or so, then the movie is over.

To Live and Die in L.A. is a more ambitious effort, and certainly a more interesting one It’s a cop movie with a Miami Vice/MTV feel to it, with lots of neat photography, jumpy editing, and mucho violence.

The plot – about some Secret Service agents (William L. Petersen, John Pankow) going after a ruthless counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe) – is basic shoot-’em-up material. What gives the film its distinctiveness is the moral wasteland it creates. There’s nothing good or remotely noble here, not even a Bronsonesque thirst for vengeance (one of the cops is avowedly looking to avenge the murder of his old partner, but it soon becomes clear he’s in it as much for the kicks).

These agents break the law with casual indifference, they abuse their informers, and eventually they manage to get a fellow agent killed. The movie doesn’t outwardly condone this behavior, but the fast-paced lifestyle does appear attractive, thanks to the snazzy depiction of it (special credit to Robby Muller’s photography and Wang Chung’s music).

Director William Friedkin has created this kind of hellish universe before, in The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer, and Cruising. He gives you his own black view of Los Angeles, which in his hands looks a lot like the urban jungle of Death Wish 3.

Friedkin’s vision is certainly unpleasant, although the movie does grab you now and then. He has a couple of surprises up his sleeve, and there’s a spectacular chase that attempts to outdo the set-piece from The French Connection. But be warned: It’s the sort of film that, despite the superficial treats to be had along the way, ultimately leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

First published in The Herald, November 6, 1985

I know what you’re thinking: Why was I worried about foreigners, when the effect of a movie like Death Wish 3 was obviously more profound on Americans? The U.S. is going through something right now that was surely helped, at least a little, by the attractions of the 80s vigilante picture. Anyway, I realize the Friedkin film has lots of fans, and maybe I would be one of them if I sat down and watched it again. Death Wish 3‘s cast include Marina Sirtis and Alex Winter, both of whom have talked about how much they disliked the experience.

Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects

August 16, 2012

The new Charles Bronson movie is called Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects, and the title is only the first weird thing about it. This incredible movie posits Bronson as a Los Angeles cop who works in the vice squad, a job that depresses him but that provides the film with plenty of opportunities for sleaze.

In the opening sequence, he busts in on a man with an underage prostitute in a hotel room. Bronson grabs a sexual device and makes the man take his point, so to speak. (Bronson’s first line of the next scene is, “I don’t think I can eat tonight.” Sheesh.)

And this is just the beginning. In a parallel story, a Japanese businessman (James Pax) brings his family to the United States, where he molests Bronson’s adolescent daughter on a bus. Bronson’s rage goes out toward all Asian people; meanwhile, his wife (Peggy Lipton, once of TV’s “Mod Squad”) suggests that his concern over his daughter may be unnaturally intense.

Then, coincidentally, the Japanese businessman’s daughter is kidnapped by the same child-prostitution ring that Bronson has been investigating. Bronson doesn’t know if he can work the case—”Could you replace me with someone more sympathetic to the Oriental community?” he asks his superior—but he digs in anyway.

Wacky incidents in Bronson’s investigation include dangling a suspect from a hotel balcony by his feet (the man slips out of his boots and to his death below, an accident that is never referred to again); and a sequence in which Bronson forces the scummiest pimp (Juan Fernandez) to swallow a $25,000 Tiffany watch. In one gulp. On the less colorful side, Bronson also smears a guy with hot dogs and mustard at a football game.

Some of this falls into the so-bad-it’s-unintentionally-funny category, but quite a bit of the film is creepy and ugly.

It’s an unpleasant movie. I’m guessing that at some point, the complicated screenplay (by someone named Harold Nebenzal) may have been a serious look at a policeman who, dehumanized by his job, begins to crack up. Something along the lines of Clint Eastwood’s Tightrope, for instance. But in the hands of Bronson, everything gets trivialized.

This badger-faced, beef-fisted actor can still mix it up, but he does his most convincing acting when he tells his wife that he’d like to call it quits and open up a little saloon somewhere. (Perhaps in Carmel, like Eastwood.) It might not be a bad idea, Chuck, you’re looking tired.

First published in the Herald, February 2, 1989

Nothing against Bronson, but this string of movies was unworthy of the man. And Kinjite was one of the worst—J. Lee Thompson in the director’s chair, again.

The Evil That Men Do

June 21, 2012

Fans of late-night movies have fun following the early career of a fellow named Charles Buchinsky (sometimes Buchinski), a striking supporting actor who hangs around the edges of scenes in program fare from the 1950s. He made B-movies, including Westerns, and his Slavic features were used for comedic effect when he played a milk-drinking tough guy in the Tracy-Hepburn movie Pat and Mike.

In the mid-50s he changed his named, and what a change it brought about. Charles Bronson. Grrr. Suddenly, he was one of The Magnificent Seven riding off into a squinty-eyed sunset. Bronson was to become even bigger in the 1970s, when his action films grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, and he was a gigantic box-office draw all over the world.

Bronson has made some good movies—such as Once Upon a Time in the West and The Great Escape—but he’s been coasting for years. He’s no longer as popular in the United States, but overseas his name still brings ’em in, and he continues to make movies with violent (especially revenge-related) themes.

The Evil That Men Do is formula Bronson all the way. He’s a professional killer lured out of retirement when a friend is murdered. This time, the fish is a big one: an evil man known as “The Doctor” (Joseph Maher) whose work and pleasure is in torturing and murdering innocent people.

Bronson goes undercover to what seems to be Guatemala (the film was shot in Mexico), accompanied by his friend’s widow (Theresa Saldana), who poses as his wife. She’s always saying things such as, “Why is he so cold? Nothing affects him,” about Bronson—which he finds out, because he can read lips. But he doesn’t care, because he’s cold and nothing affects him.

The Doctor is surrounded by vicious bodyguards, all of whom are destroyed by Bronson. Not too many surprises here, since we know how the film will turn out, but there is a kinky first for a Bronson film: One of these creeps (Raymond St. Jacques) propositions Charlie and Saldana, who pose as a sexually adventurous couple. Bronson even puts his wrinkled paw in the dude’s hand and proposes a threesome.

Charles Bronson? In a threesome?

Thanks heavens, nothing weird happens, because before the guy can get out his leather socks, Bronson wastes him good.

The rest is standard fare: Bronson speaks little, and much blood is shed. Director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Naravone) keeps things moving at a snail’s pace, which really drags down a film with a dusty Mexican setting.

What gives the film a strange feeling is the presence of Theresa Saldana, who had a role in Raging Bull. A couple of years ago, she was stabbed on the street by one of those psychos who become obsessed with a media image. That’s the kind of scenario that might crop up in a Bronson film, and somehow her casting here—although she’s perfectly okay in the role—lends an uncomfortable eeriness to some aspects of the movie. Unfortunately, though hardly unexpectedly, that’s the only interesting thing going on here.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1984

For me this one started the run of unbelievably moribund Bronson pictures in the 1980s, including three Death Wish sequels. Driving up to the Aurora Village theater to see one of these on the Friday afternoon it opened was a truly numbing experience, in every way.

Death Wish 4

January 27, 2011

Death Wish 4 provides Charles Bronson with employment in his customary line of work: He loads himself down with ammunition and sets out to do justice in the world, without the intermediary of the judicial system. This time out, the target is drugs. Since, as one character puts it, “Everybody does drugs these days,” Bronson has quite a task.

As the film opens, it looks as though Bronson is preparing to ease into his golden years. He’s got a new girlfriend (Kay Lenz) and a flourishing business as an architect. Lenz has an adolescent daughter who is perky and lovable and full of life. This means that she is, of course, marked for death, since most people who get close to Bronson in these movies wind up getting wasted.

He takes revenge on the pusher who sold her some deadly drugs. Then Bronson is hired by a rich newspaper man (John P. Ryan) who seeks to destroy the two main suppliers of drugs in Los Angeles. Bronson opens up the ammo arsenal that he keeps behind his refrigerator and goes to work.

It’s formula action, although this sequel is slightly better than the last two Death Wish movies. J. Lee Thompson brings at least some professionalism to his direction, though the movie never blinds you with its speed. Bronson, who looks more than ever like a large, grizzled otter, goes through his usual paces. He begins the film with a dream about his favorite haunt, a dimly lit parking garage, and he remains all but asleep throughout the rest of the movie.

First published in the Herald, November 1987

A crap remake of Bronson’s Mechanic opens this week, so it seemed time to drag out another of that fine star’s desultory outings from the Eighties. And yes, if memory serves, this one was marginally superior to the previous sequels in the series; but J. Lee Thompson would stick with Charlie B. for two subsequent pictures, Messenger of Death and Kinjite—Forbidden Subjects, which were really grueling and ugly. And that was it for the directing career of the man who made The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear. I don’t need to tell you that Kay Lenz was a mainstay of Seventies and Eighties TV, and played the lead in Clint Eastwood’s Breezy, a nice movie that had an incredibly maddening and unavoidable four-wall ad campaign. (I wasn’t old enough to go to the movie when it came out, but logging twelve hours of television a day, the commercials would drive you insane.) It was the kind of thing to make you never forget Kay Lenz.

Messenger of Death

December 29, 2010

Charles Bronson varies his formula ever so slightly in Messenger of Death, in which he plays a reporter out to discover who slaughtered a family in rural Colorado.

The fact that the movie is set outside of the big bad city is one step away from Bronson’s Death Wish routine, and the fact that he’s not playing a retired hit man lured out of retirement is another.

The murder is related to an extremist Mormon family that believes in blood atonement, a policy that allows murder to be very much in the air. Which, for a Charles Bronson movie, is a pretty good place for murder to be.

Apparently, the massacre that opens the film, in which a houseful of women and children are gunned down, is the result of a family feud between warring, wigged-out polygamists, whose Old Testament cragginess echoes the Colorado hills. But, having established this juicy stand-off, the film kills off the two patriarchs.

With this exotic religious element gone, the film degenerates into the same old Bronson shoot-’em-up, with our man exhibiting his usual invincibility. Not only does Bronson evade all bullets sent his direction, he also navigates a little pickup truck between two thundering 18-wheelers that are trying to make a highway sandwich out of him.

After the initial intrigue with the Mormon business, the film becomes as perfunctory as Bronson’s standard (veteran J. Lee Thompson, a regular collaborator in Bronson’s last, sleepwalking decade, directs). Bronson’s love interest, for instance, seems to be split between a fellow reporter and a small-town publisher. But, having set up certain possibilities with these two women, the movie proceeds to ignore them. Just killing time, it turns out, between those dull spots when Bronson isn’t beating somebody up.

First published in the Herald, 1988.

When I think about reviewing movies in the 1980s I think about driving up to the Aurora Village mall or some other awful suburban movie-showing venue in order to see a Charles Bronson picture. I like Bronson everywhere else, but in the Eighties—hoo boy, with a couple of exceptions, it’s a trudge through diminishing budgets and spirits.