The DEATH WISH franchise is one of genre cinema’s most schizophrenic. Over a 20-year period beginning in 1974, five DEATH WISH movies were theatrically released by four different studios. Even though most of them were set in New York City, filming occurred in three different countries on two continents. And whereas the original film was a serious drama about urban crime and its effects on decent, law-abiding citizens, later entries could hardly have been more cartoonish if their hero had fallen off a cliff and been banged on the head with an anvil. About the only thing all five DEATH WISHes have in common is their star: the venerable Charles Bronson, who finally became a major Hollywood leading man at age 52 after two decades as a character actor and international star.
Paul Talbot, a film historian who has written articles for esteemed genre publications such as PSYCHOTRONIC VIDEO and VIDEO WATCHDOG (the current issue has Talbot’s breezy look at AMITYVILLE 3-D, of all things), has documented the origin, production, history and aftermath of the DEATH WISH saga in a new trade paperback from iUniverse titled BRONSON'S LOOSE!: THE MAKING OF THE DEATH WISH FILMS. Talbot has a conversational writing style that appeals to me. In BRONSON’S LOOSE, he manages to sift through decades’ worth of books, magazines, reviews, screenplays and other reference materials, including several personal interviews with filmmakers involved with DEATH WISH, and distilled all of his research into just over 160 clean, precise pages.
DEATH WISH was produced independently by Dino de Laurentiis and released by Paramount in 1974, when it became a major box-office smash. More than just a movie, its story about a liberal New York architect, Paul Kersey (Bronson), who transforms into a gun-toting vigilante after his wife and daughter are brutally attacked in their home, became a hot topic in the news and on talk shows. Bronson, a recognizable actor from big features like THE DIRTY DOZEN and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, became a household name in the United States (he already was one in many European countries, where he had acted in several action movies that went mostly unnoticed in the U.S.) that was synonymous with “tough guy.” Strangely, considering its popularity, DEATH WISH was not sequelized until 1982, when Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, the notorious “Go-Go Boys” who owned The Cannon Group, bought the rights and made three follow-ups during the 1980’s, including the preposterous DEATH WISH 3, which turned the middle-aged Kersey into an urban Rambo who used automatic weapons almost as large as he to wipe out over a hundred rampaging street punks. Trimark (barely) released the final installment, 1994’s DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH. Bronson was 72 then.
Consider it a compliment when I say that virtually everything you want to know about the DEATH WISH movies--that can be known--is reported in Talbot’s book. That caveat marks BRONSON’S LOOSE’s biggest problem, which is that most of the major names involved with the movies are either dead or presumably too “important” to talk about these movies. For instance, Jeff Goldblum, who made his film debut in DEATH WISH with a freaky, intense performance, isn’t represented. Nor are Laurence Fishburne, who played a heavy in DEATH WISH II, or Jimmy Page, the rock star who composed its score. Bronson is, of course, dead (not that the notoriously press-shy star would have spoken with Talbot anyway), as are fellow actors Vincent Gardenia, Hope Lange, Steven Keats, J.D. Cannon, Martin Balsam and Jill Ireland (Bronson’s wife), director J. Lee Thompson and screenwriter Wendell Mayes. Obviously, Talbot can’t be blamed for these omissions, but I can’t help feeling that a lot of vital film history went to the grave with these talented filmmakers.
On the bright side, Talbot did conduct informative interviews with the hyperbolic Michael Winner, who directed the first three DEATH WISH films and knew Bronson about as well as any of the star’s professional colleagues (the two did six films together). The talkative director, who should write a book of his own, shares many happy and not-so-happy memories of shooting with Bronson, a mercurial homebody who didn’t suffer fools at all and had difficulty feeling comfortable unless his beloved wife Ireland were around. Other interview subjects include novelist Brian Garfield, whose DEATH WISH was adapted for the screen by Mayes; director Steve Carver, who was supposed to helm DEATH WISH V; Allan A. Goldstein, who did; and screenwriter Gail Morgan Hickman (a man, by the way). Goldstein has some fascinating insight, as he appears to have formed a close friendship with Bronson; not many people can say that. The book is introduced by an amusing foreword by actor Andrew Stevens, who acted twice with Bronson, but never in a DEATH WISH movie.
One more pitfall is a lack of decent photos. Considering Talbot had access to press kits, I’m surprised the book isn’t illustrated with plenty of stills, and I wish some of his interview subjects had lent him some personal behind-the-scenes photos. The only images Talbot features are hazy black-and-white scans of book covers, DVD box art, ad mattes, videocassette covers, a few lobby cards, and other not-so-rare artifacts. I appreciate Talbot’s substantive reporting and writing, but the warmth and personality that well-chosen photographs can convey are sorely missed. I must say, however, that I was surprised to learn from an image of the box that a DEATH WISH 3 videogame exists. Hell, yeah, I’d like to play it!
BRONSON’S LOOSE!: THE MAKING OF THE DEATH WISH FILMS is a quick, easy read, but an entertaining and informative one, despite my criticisms. As an unabashed Charles Bronson fan, even his ‘80s Cannon period, which kept him on movie screens as an action leading man at a time when most of his contemporaries had either died, retired or settled into character roles, I appreciate Talbot’s tightly written chronicle of one of the most unusual and least known aspects of the star’s career.