October 7, 2020

Death Wish 3 is One Heck of a Western

saddle on horse

Anybody who grew up watching Westerns will immediately recognize what has to be one of the most commonly encountered plots. A lone stranger rides into town, arousing the suspicion of the townspeople. He encounters someone vulnerable (e.g., a woman, child, older person) who is being mistreated by a gang of villains (and/or he himself is mistreated by the gang of villains). Although he's outnumbered and facing overwhelming odds, he decides to fight back. While he may find some allies, the responsibility for righting the wrongs are primarily his. Of course, he carries this burden well, gunning down countless bad guys along the way. It is little more than a basic revenge scenario, but many of us have been content to watch slight variations on this theme more times than we can probably remember.

Of course, what I have just described is in no way limited to Westerns. Replace the horses with cars, upgrade the Colt "Peacemakers" with modern firepower, and move the whole thing out of the prairie and into an urban location. Now you have a modern Western that doesn't look anything like a Western. You can call it an action film if you like, but that doesn't change the fact that it is really just a Western with updated set pieces. Want a specific example? How about one of the most awesomely bad action films of the mid-80s: Death Wish 3.

I loved it in 1985, and I still loved it when I watched it again last weekend. It doesn't look much like a Western, but that's what it is. The lone stranger (Charles Bronson) arrives on an airplane and taxi cab instead of a horse, but he immediately arouses suspicion. In fact, he's arrested when he discovers the dead body of the friend he came to visit. We will soon learn that the friend was murdered by a gang that has been terrorizing the neighborhood. In fact, they have been terrorizing all sorts of vulnerable people Bronson will soon be fighting for. But before any of this happens, he is hauled in by the police just like the hero in the Western is often questioned by the sheriff shortly after he shows up.

Bronson the gunslinger faces off against one of the most absurdly colorful gangs ever to grace the big screen. I laughed several times as I wondered whether anyone associated with this film or others like it ever thought that urban gangs behaved like these guys. They were so over-the-top that they made the most colorful villains in the Mad Max films seem sophisticated by comparison. And was that really the dude from the Bill & Ted films cast as one of the bad guys? Alex Winter? Yes, it was! I had completely forgotten he was in this.

In Death Wish 3, the filmmakers really committed to going over the top, and this is what makes it morph into sort of a parody of both Westerns and action films. Bronson isn't just up against a handful of extremely colorful bad guys; there are probably a couple hundred of them! That means he'll be using machine guns and even an RPG launcher. Even his magic pistols that rarely seem to run out of ammunition won't be enough when the bad guys are also armed (but in true 80's style can't hit anything). He'll need to get some help from the townspeople too.

Even though I am reasonably sure I haven't seen it more than 3-4 times in my life, Death Wish 3 feels like something I've seen 40+ times. This shouldn't be surprising since it merely applies the same template used by countless Westerns. The funny thing is that it hadn't occurred to me that it was a Western until I watched it again recently. And now that I see it that way, I don't think I could ever stop seeing it that way. Maybe that even helps to explain why I like it so much.

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