Sunday, 14 April 2013

Michael Winner in Memoriam

It was very saddening to hear the passing of the British director Michael Winner on January 21st. He was aged 77. Since then, a lot of other beloved, interesting movie folk have passed as well. Night Visions Back To Basics -festival this weekend had a special screening of Death Wish 3 in memoriam of Winner, a true sleazy master and creator of a truly unforgettable classic. So, lest we forget the wine- and fancy dinner-loving, punk rocker and poor people -hating renegade, I take a look at the first three Death Wish films, his most popular work.

Death Wish (1974)

The nominal, original vigilantist movie, the film sees a peaceful architect getting pushed too far and starting to solve New York's crime problem by killing off muggers. Winner prides himself of having done ground-breaking work with this film. According to the director, American heroes had not killed other civilians in a modern-set movie before. While not strictly true, it was a new, novel idea on a mainstream film and subsequently this film became a big success.

Korean war veteran Paul Kersey (Bronson) shrugs off the news of New York City's rising crime numbers, thinking they are caused by poverty rather than the corrupted youth. Yet when street punks break into his own apartment, killing his wife and sexually assaulting his daughter, he starts to see the situation differently.

Kersey starts to prowl the streets, waiting to get mugged only to beat up or kill the attacking criminals.
As it happens, Kersey's extreme approach to the problem brings solutions and crime rates start to drop as citizens are inspired by the mysterious vigilante and his actions. Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) must decide whether to capture the vigilante or to raise his hands, allowing him to clean the streets one thug at a time.

The film is suitably gritty and sleazy, a real serious affair. The film is very close of actually being as good and ground-breaking as Winner says, if not for one thing: Charles Bronson. Don't get me wrong, I love the wood-faced lug, but as an actor, he just doesn't have the chops. The film would require a regular man spiral out of control, to have a real-seeming death wish, if you will.

Bronson, however, seems like he's going to murder a couple of punks on his way to the store from the get-go. Even while his character goes through an emotional rollercoaster, Bronson remains kind of stoic and unmoved. Only at the end does he seem to develop a kind of an enjoyment in harassing street punks.

It's an outrageous, entertaining film thats till works quite well on his own. But as it was, Kersey's adventures were far from over.

★★★ 1/2

Death Wish II (1982)

Having been ran put of town at the end of his first vigilantism affair, Paul Kersey has since settled to live in Los Angeles. Which, as everyone must know, is far from being a crime-free city. He takes care of his daughter Carol (Robin Sherwood), who still hasn't quite recovered from the traumas she suffered back in New York. Kersey is also dating a new woman, Geri Nichols (Jill Ireland).

Of course life doesn't hand good cards to Kersey and one bad run-in with a gang of punks leaves them hungry for vengeance. So, they assault his housekeeper, kidnap and rape his daughter, which drives poor Carol to jump out of the window to her death. So, Kersey returns to his old, murderous vigilantist ways. And the cops realize this too, and contact New York and Detective Frank Ochoa.

This part II is one of those sequels that offers little beyond more of the same. There is some more outrageousness in the kills and Winner seethes with even more hatred and distaste in the modern youth and their punk culture. The grittiness and sleaziness has bulged to the point of making the hinges creak. Yet Winner does manage to keep the tone of this still relatively serious, mostly by keeping the pace still quite slow and the action inglorious, fast and ugly.

The film has a cynical ending that's even more open than the previous one. As New York's crime problems seemed to at least have taken a turn for the better, now the only thing at stake is Kersey's personal vengeance. he does get it, doesn't get caught, keeps working as an architect and feels somewhat satisfied at the end. But the film does question whether he actually had any affect in the overall situation, killing criminals out of personal reasons rather than because it is the right thing to do. According to Winner, at least.


Death Wish 3 (1985)

It should be noted that the Finnish name for these films is Väkivallan vihollinen, which means An Enemy of Violence. It does somewhat work on the first one (the title stems from the name of the book the first film was based on, I guess), but gets more ridiculous the further the series goes. None more so than in the third part, since there's not a single enemy of violence in the film. Everyone thinks violence is a reasonable solution to crime problems, from little old ladies to police officers to attorneys. And Kersey is of course a champion of this viewpoint.

At this point it is forgotten that Kersey used to be an architect, as he is now characterized to be more or less a drifter. An old west drifter, to be exact, arriving to areas of unrest to bring Old Testament -style justice to wrongdoers. Now Kersey returns to New York to visit an old war buddy, only to find he has been murdered by a local street gang, led by Fraker (Gavan O'Herlihy), keeping a whole neighborhood in terror.

Since the police is also fed up with the gang's reign of terror, they offer Kersey a deal of looking the other way while he does what he does. Kersey sets up in the old apartment of his friend, making friends of his neighbors, and of course ordering the hugest handgun the world has seen to start cleaning up the streets.

Cheerfully fascist, Winner shows every dead punk as a reason for rejoicing. Bronson himself found the film a bit distasteful, maintaining that the idea of the series is that violence stems violence. Indeed, Kersey's actions stem an entire block war, with booby traps and closeted old war relics being brought up to kill as many gang members as possible.

The disregard of human life goes to ridiculous lengths, making this one of the most purely enjoyable of 80's action films. It's not a mean feat, because Bronson himself has grown older, and the scenes which require him to run from gunfire in particular are laughable. But Winner knows he can shoot rotten youngsters getting shot in an infinite way, and gleefully exploits this notion to the point of pure mania. The explosive finale in particular is an incredible idea of a pure creative genius and madness in the same package.


So rest in piece Sir Michael, your films still bring us great amounts of pleasure, as could be seen in the Night Visions screening, with a hooting and applauding audience loving every minute.

The other two Death Wish films were not directed by Winner, so I won't include them here. But fear not, I'll find another way to write something about them as well.

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