If the universe is ever going to start making sense, Paul Talbot, author of Bronson’s Loose! – The Making of the Death Wish Films, will not only receive the Pulitzer that is his due, but also the undying adoration of thousands of fans, all of whom have worshipped at Chuck’s blood-soaked altar for decades. Released in 2006, this book is long overdue, coming a full twelve years after the final installment of the series, and well over three years since Bronson himself succumbed to pneumonia while being cradled in the tender bosom of a woman — his wife — a full half century his junior. But it made sense after all, for how else would Paul Kersey check out than with the only type of woman he dared sleep with on screen, knowing full well the release of his member spelled doom for anything with a vagina? Still, despite the outrageous delay in celebrating the five-part masterwork, this is the sort of book fans have been dreaming about: funny, knowing, and full of delightful trivia, it respects the movies while also understanding that with the slight exception of the first, these were cynically crafted exploitation pictures designed solely to titillate, entertain, and rub our noses in appalling violence. And if they were also dripping with misogyny and racial stereotypes, so much the better. At bottom, Talbot never lets us forget why these films remain as popular as ever: the charisma and allure of Charles Bronson.
The maiden voyage of the series — the only one to receive mostly (or any) positive reviews in the press — is given the most extensive treatment, though it remains, in some ways, the least interesting of the bunch. It’s a solid right-wing fantasy, full of glorious sadism and political ax-grinding, but it takes itself too seriously and asks us to believe that its immersion in filth is some kind of moral statement. Some may take it as a “message picture” that spoke to the powerlessness of the times, but for my money, I’ll always remember Jeff Goldblum, the spray paint on the ass, and the cruel delivery of, “I rape rich cunts like you.” Talbot faithfully presents the history, the adaptation of Brian Garfield’s source novel, the financing, and all the industry gossip surrounding what at the time was a controversial release, but I always came back to the snippets of Bronson himself: tough, quiet, and always in fantastic physical condition. Hell, the man could still do over a hundred push-ups on the set of Part V, despite being 72-years-old. Bronson comes across as an ass in many ways (his undeniable greed, first of all, with the temerity to bitch about the movies once they were in the can), but nearly everyone interviewed for the book spoke to Chuck’s warm, humorous nature. For most, he was a dream on the set, despite the talk that he often clashed with his directors.
Parts II & III swim through my mind like a fevered orgasm, and the familiar will be utterly delighted by gossip, dialogue, and well-deserved attacks on the poor quality of filmmaking. As the book demonstrates, the second installment was essentially without a script, as change after change left a gaping hole where a story should have been. But who’s complaining? The final result, while atrocious and unforgivably incompetent, is a wild ride of silly performances and memorable lines. Who can forget Bronson’s, “I see you believe in Jesus….Well, you’re gonna meet him”? The best story from Part II, however, is Kevyn Major Howard’s discussion of his character “Stomper,” the very man who is plugged after Bronson’s brilliant mockery. To hear Howard’s assessment, one would think he was preparing for Shakespeare in the Park, or the tortured hero of a Tennessee Williams’ drama. Method acting might produce more authentic performances, but is it necessary to “live the character” for two months when your only job is to rape a traumatized young woman and take a bullet to the chest? Still, Howard’s conviction made me smile, as his passion for the work — even dreck — represents a dying age when so many want to break into acting simply to secure a payday.
Again, Death Wish 3 stands, with Commando, as the greatest action film of the 1980s, primarily for its willingness to throw logic, sense, and decency out the window in favor of a high body count without the burden of deep thought. It all but celebrates murder, which is perfectly reasonable given that the neighborhood we see on display was the North American Beirut of its day. It was interesting to learn that director Michael Winner and the producers were accused of exploiting the Bernard Goetz subway shootings for box office dollars, but such a charge seems to forget that it was the first film, made a decade before, that legitimized the very act committed by the white folk hero of the Reagan era. If anything, Goetz exploited Death Wish and its unique cure for assorted social ills. Along with the recap, the author pulls quotes from reliably harsh reviews, including one from the New York Times: “It’s a surrealistic neighborhood Mr. Winner creates … You can hardly go to the grocery store without being raped.” Hence the appeal, o paper of record. It’s also enjoyable to hear about how Bronson, aging quickly and badly, initially refused much physical exertion, which prompted Winner to insist that he simply set up a hot dog stand, whereby Kersey would kill the creeps with poison. Bronson took note, and geared up for his own stunts like a professional. And remember the big-titted black whore (who, the author gleefully reminds us, was the series’ first and only rape victim to be a person of color) during the final, chaotic scenes? Yep, Winner fucked her, though he later sued a British tabloid when it was suggested that he whipped her and locked her up as a sex slave.
From Part 3 on, the fascistic team of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus provide many a humorous tale, and the author, along with mining the Death Wish series, gives us a mini-history of the Israeli brotherhood’s shoestring movie company, Cannon Group. Just about every film released by the pair defined the era’s homoeroticism, anti-Communist hysteria, and cultlike worship of death, but it is the Bronson oeuvre that we’ll best remember. Consider this gushing comment from Golan, when asked about Death Wish 3: “It has a rape in it like you’ve never seen! It’s very strong — like Michael Winner said, it’s World War III! It’s the most violent movie I’ve ever seen, but don’t misunderstand me, it’s an anti-violence film!” So much love in every word, yet such calculated delusion as to be laughable. But Winner knew better; he stated at every turn that the movie was a deliberate push away from the more somber beginning to the series. This was about fun, and all involved knew they had to take it up a notch to match high-energy cartoons like Rambo: First Blood Part II, which came out the same year. When it finally hit screens in November of 1985, I was shocked to learn that it was #1 at the box office for its opening week. The claim seems dubious to me, but I’ll take Talbot at his word. At the very least, I want to believe that the movie I’ve seen more than any other once captured the hearts and minds of the American public I now hold in such low regard.
By the time Parts IV and V roll around (and Michael Winner is dispatched), Bronson is tired, but still willing to extend his powerful hands for an easy paycheck. Certainly, these films were the worst of the series — more autopilot than genuine pleasure — but Talbot loves them just the same. Throughout, but especially as Bronson ages, the author remarks on Chuck’s physical appearance, often commenting on his hairstyle, muscle tone, and wardrobe. It’s clear Talbot is in awe, if not in love, though his worship seems less sexual than a recognition of what real manhood can be if allowed to age, develop crags, and indulge in tawdry affairs with much younger women. Sure, the book could have contained more flattering images of Bronson (stills and movie posters are in faded black and white, and look to have been reproduced on a cheap copier in need of toner), but he’s never an object of scorn, or even light judgment. Bronson’s occasional bad attitude or laziness is always excused, and because he always refuses to watch his own movies, we see him as humble, rather than hopelessly vain. It seemed odd that Bronson enjoyed shooting the fifth movie most of all, given that it’s the most worthless of the bunch, but that’s the sort of unpredictability we’d expect from such a mysterious man.
But it’s all here — the Death Wish 3 video game (“Strap on your Wildey Magnum and turn yourself into a one man fighting force armed with pump action shotgun, machine gun, and rocket launcher”), why Marina Sirtis really didn’t have any dialogue, how the cast reacted to the brutal rape scenes, why Jill Ireland’s cancer forced a drastic script change for Part IV, the benefits of filming in Toronto, and the truth behind the proposed sixth film, sans Bronson. It’s a short book to be sure (only 117 pages, plus an Appendix or two), but it’s a few hours well spent. It’s the best excuse yet to crack out the DVDs once again. For Charlie.