Reviewed by: Brett Willis
Starring: Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia, Steven Keats, William Redfield, Kathleen Tolan | Director: Michael Winner | Producers: Michael Winner, Hal Landers, Bobby Roberts | Screenwriter: Wendell Mayes, from the novel by Brian Garfield | Released By: Paramount
From the usual Hollywood perspective, almost everything is wrong with this movie. Instead of liberalism delivered with soft plot touches and “off-the-nose” dialog, there’s a radical pro-gun stance and a contrived plot and sometimes-corny dialog that deliver their message with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Yet the film was successful, and spawned several sequels.
We open on middle-aged Paul and Joanna Kersey (Charles Bronson, Hope Lange) enjoying a dream vacation in Hawaii. But alas, they must eventually go back to New York City with its 15 to 20 murders per week. Shortly after returning, Joanna and her adult daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) are assaulted by three street freaks posing as grocery delivery boys. Carol is stripped and perhaps raped or possibly just humiliated; Joanna is beaten; and both women are spray-painted, “just for fun.” Joanna later dies of her injuries, and Carol retreats into a psychiatric state of denial.
As Paul tries to deal with what’s happened and get on with his life, he’s confronted by other instances of violence. These sequences and the discordant Herbie Hancock theme music paint us a world where law-abiding people constantly fear for their lives. In this context, we learn Paul’s backstory: although he’s been a liberal-pacifist his entire adult life, he does know how to use a gun. Any guesses where the rest of the film is going? As Paul starts to take back the streets and make them safer, Inspector Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) gets hot on his trail. But of course the Inspector and the city government would have a political nightmare on their hands if they actually caught him.
Content Warnings: There are many killings, not staged “realistically” by today’s standards. Profanity is extreme in spots. No nudity or sexual content except for the opening assault scene.
The overall message of the film is an unbridled call to vigilantism. Who knows, perhaps the subway sequence in this film encouraged the real-life actions of Bernhard Goetz ten years later. Vigilantism is justifiable when normal law enforcement breaks down, as it sometimes did in the Old West. Is it justifiable in today’s urban jungles? I’m not going to attempt to answer that one.
Young Jeff Goldblum is one of the three freaks in the initial assault sequence. And young Olympia Dukakis (uncredited) can be spotted as a policewoman reading a report for the Inspector.
Followed by: several (numbered) sequels. I’ve never seen any of the sequels in its entirety. But from what I have seen and from the reviews I’ve read, it seems that each sequel is more over-the-top and exploitative than the one before. In this original, Bronson’s character is a semi-credible “everyman.” In some of the sequels he takes on superhuman status, fighting entire gang armies.