Death Wish 3 (1985) – A Review


A review of the action sequel Death Wish 3 starring Charles Bronson, Martin Balsam, Ed Lauter and Gavan O’Herilhy. A film made by The Cannon Group that was reviled upon its initial release, but has since become a classic guilty pleasure cult film

Charles Bronson Death Wish 3 1985 cult action classic

Charles Bronson is back doing his Death Wish thing for a third time!

Bronson returns as mild-mannered architect Paul Kersey who unleashed his own brand of deadly justice against criminals after having his wife and daughter brutalized and killed in two previous installments.

The last we saw Kersey he was in Los Angeles, but now he’s back to his oringial stomping ground New York City to visit an old war buddy. Sadly, he discovers his pal has been murdered by a ruthless gang. Kersey is at first thought to be the one responsible, but police detective Ed Lauter knows exactly who Kersey is, is well aware of his ‘vigilante’ history and decides that maybe Kersey can be useful in cleaning up that dangerous neighborhood.

This NY neighborhood is terrorized by these thugs, who freely rob, rape and kill innocent citizens. The police can’t seem to stop them and everyone feels absolutely helpless and resigns themselves that leader of the gang Fraker (Gavin O’Herilhy) and his murderous followers will continue to destroy the neighborhood and help themselves to whatever they want.

Ed Lauter Charles Bronson Death Wish 3
Ed Lauter & Charles Bronson

Lauter gives Kersey free reign to kill as many street punks as he wants. It’s like he’s granted a license to be a vigilante! And one thing we all know about Kersey is that he doesn’t much like watching criminals go unpunished, and is eager to dish out some ‘Death Wish’-style street justice.

As Bronson fans expect, he arms himself and stages a one-man war against these hoodlums! Soon bullets start flying, the body count rises and the victimized citizens come out in droves to cheer their vigilante savior and watch Bronson kill as many of these punks as this celluloid exploitation masterpiece by Cannon Films can contain!

Death Wish 3 is when the Death Wish series turned into something else.

While the first film was a small urban thriller and the sequel poorly tried to continue Kersey’s story on the west coast, with the third film all bets were off. This is where the series becomes a cartoonish killing spree with outlandish characters and situations that elevate things to such an incredibly absurd level any realism the Death Wish series once had completely vanishes.

This is not to say it’s not a heck of a lot of fun! In fact, Death Wish 3 is one of my favorite films in the series. Just the sheer scope of ludicrousness that starts to unreel and the attempted sincerity that director Michael Winner presents it all with make it an incredibly fun ‘bad movie’.

Death Wish 3 movie poster 1985 Charles BronsonOh yes, it’s a bad movie, but Death Wish 3 is one of those ‘so bad it’s good’ movies that prove even they can have some value and provide entertainment. Just be sure to expect that.

I would say it’s one of Bronson’s and Cannon Films greatest ‘guilty pleasure’ movies.

The movie becomes a a series of almost vignettes of silly scenes that provide unintended laughs. As Brosnan sets up shop in the neighborhood he makes his presence known and that he’s not going to sit idly by and be a passive victim to this gang.

We see these gang members harassing citizens (one member of the gang is a young Alex Winter).We can tell they’re bad gang members by their outrageous outfits, goofy face paint designs and them cackling as they snatch purses, bothering people carrying groceries and stealing tv sets.

If you’re carrying a brown grocery bag in this movie you’re just asking for trouble by this gang.

Bronson punches a hood who’s harassing a walking couple. The hood runs away and a little kid yells to Bronson, “Right on man!”. Then the old shop keeper comes out of his store with a big smile and exclaims, “Who is this man? We need him!” You know this is going to be fun!

Death Wish 3 1985 Gavan OHerilhy Alex Winter gang
O’Herlihy and his gang

Bronson then starts to set up defenses and booby traps in some of the apartments to deter this street gang. The most memorable is a springboard he makes that will hit the perpetrator in the face if they even so much as dare try to sneak in through a window, which one naturally does.

This success of making the gang member flee after Bronson’s board smacks him in the face prompts one of Bronson’s most memorable lines in the movie. As the old apartment owner sees that someone sprung Bronson’s trap he notices something strange embedded in the side of the board and asks Bronson what is that. Bronson nonchalantly replies, “Teeth.”

While Bronson is drawing a line in the dirt and Fraker gets more and more angry, they amazingly incorporate a love story between Kersey and the local public defender played by Deborah Raffin. It is the corniest, most implausible romance imaginable.

We get the sappy music, ‘intimate’ conversations, a quiet dinner between the two and of course they end up in bed together. You do not buy any kind of connection between the two for an instant.

Deborah Raffin Charles Bronson Death Wish 3 1985
Deborah Raffin & Charles Bronson find some romance among the ruins

No offense to Bronson, but he’s not the most charismatic, attractive guy in this movie. Certainly not enough to make me believe a woman half his age would fall for him in a matter of days – but that’s the magic of the movies.

Granted, Raffin’s presence is required, because according to ‘Death Wish Rules’, Kersey has to care for someone for the sole purpose of them being killed, which leaves him motivated to pick up even more firepower and kill more people.

Sorry for spoiling things, but Raffin’s ultimate demise will still be enjoyable to watch for it being so abrupt, strangely staged and downright funny.

Death Wish 3 1985 car exlposion death Cannon Films
Raffin’s explosive demise

Ok, so Kersey is about to leave with her upstate, but he has to stop to check his mail. They lovingly smile at each other and as soon as he turns his back, O’Herlihy pops out of nowhere, punches her in the face, pushes her car down a hill, it crashes into another car and explodes in a fireball killing her.

It’s all done with such little finesse you have to applaud it. It’s like director Michael Winner knew they had to give her a death scene, but didn’t want to spend much time on the buildup to it, but wanted to make it as exciting as possible with the budget they had. Cue a Cannon Films explosion for no reason!

You gotta appreciate it’s pace. Death Wish 3 doesn’t waste any time getting to what it knows fans wanted to see. Does it matter how ludicrous a road it is to get there or if massive leaps of logic are made? Nah! Let’s just get to the good stuff!

The execution of the story is kind of surreal, even the rundown neighborhood looks bizarre.

Charles Bronson Death Wish 1985 New York set EnglandMost of the movie was filmed in England and the NY city neighborhood appears as this isolated patch of nondescript area that feels like it exists in another dimension. It’s a strange place, dirty alleys, old apartment buidlings, vacant lots, grimy parking garages, but it also has an ice cream shop and a grocer. It doesn’t appear to be connected to our reality. It’s like a violent, dirtier version of Sesame Street.

You know how everyone raves about how Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut didn’t really resemble a realistic New York City and that it was more like a dreamlike version of it and they applaud Kubrick’s artistic choice with its presentation?

Well, Winner and Cannon pull off a similar feat here, only they didn’t receive any positive acknowledgements about it. Granted it was probably due more to the budget than any kind of artistic aspirations….but still!

Death Wish 3 NY set building location
The residents get a front row seat to Bronson killing

Some of the stuff Bronson does gets to be head shaking. For instance, I always liked how Kersey rents a PO box and orders his famed gun – a 475 Wildey Magnum. It looks really cool and it’s a real kick to watch when he starts plugging punks with it.

But he also orders a rocket launcher too! I start to wonder, is it really that easy? No problem doing that? Could a rented PO box hold the amount of artillery Kersey orders? Or maybe they keep it in the back for him when these giant packages don’t fit in his little rented box.

Martin Balsam Death Wish 3 1985 machine gun
Martin Balsam taking aim at punks

Like I said, the movie doesn’t really stop with such nagging issues. We need Kersey to get a gun and a rocket launcher. Ok, so he orders them!

I suppose when you see the great character actor Martin Balsam pull out a giant WW2 machine gun from his armoire, along with loads of ammunition! You’re not meant to think twice about it. Sure, he just has that lying around.

Balsam shines in his triumphant moment of standing on a fire escape with his machine gun ready to rain down ammo on the approaching gang. Unfortunately, his gun jams. Darn it! Fortunately, it will work quite well for Brosnan later.

Whereas the first Death Wish made Kersey’s encounters tense and dramatic, here they’re just plain comical. Rather than being a suspenseful confrontation with two thugs who are breaking into his car he bought to use as bait to lure them to him, the scene plays more like a comedy skit. That’s a sizable payment he makes to buy a whole car just to lure car thieves to it by the way, but eh ok I guess he has cash to spare.

Charles Bronson Death Wish 3 1985 action movie sequelHis new car works like a charm and two hoods break into it. Kersey realizes they’re stripping his car while he’s enjoying a quiet dinner with an old Jewish couple in the building. He politely excuses himself, walks up to the two gang members and simply shoots them. He then walks back to finish his dinner.

It’s so completely blasé you’d think he excused himself from the table so he could put change in the parking meter, not kill two street hoods right in front of his apartment building.

The reaction by the harassed citizens after Kersey kills the notorious Giggler gang member is priceless. Everyone sees Bronson use his new gun to shoot the running guy in the back. Is there concern? Fear? Worry? Nope! They all stick their heads out of their apartment windows like puppets and start cheering and applauding that the Giggler is dead!

It’s just too funny!

Death Wish 3 Marina Sirtis Joseph Gonzalez
Marina Sirtis & Joe Gonzalez

Amongst all the silliness, Winner stages a rape scene with Marina Sirtis. It gets pretty graphic and unsettling. According to stories of the production and by Sirtis herself, Winner was not very sympathetic towards her when filming the scene. To this day she still despises how he treated her on the set.

It is a graphic scene and certainly stands out among all the frivolous action that fills the rest of the movie. There have been several disturbing stories about Winner and his behavior on film productions.

Things eventually escalate into a full blown neighborhood battle – Fraker’s gang versus Brosnan and the citizens. It kind of reminds me of the end of the first Police Academy, where the new recruits would each have their own encounter with street thugs during a riot.

Here, it’s Bronson shooting a thug off this building, then a thug getting thrown out of the window of this house, then these hoods are driving a car, Bronson opens fire on them, the car crashes and explodes. A building burns to the ground. We start bouncing around seeing gang members being killed in all manner of ways. It’s like an action movie game of Whac-A-Mole. Sometimes you’re not even sure if some of this stuff is taking place in the same neighborhood!

Death Wish 3 1985 guilty pleasure movie Cannon Films
The citizens enjoy watching violent payback to the gang on live tv!

One humorous bit I am always amused by is during the big climax with hoods getting shot and explosions rocking the neighborhood, Balsam is watching the melee out of his hospital window with a big smile on his face.

The elderly Jewish couple are also satisfied with all this killing. They’re enjoying watching this war between Bronson and the gang unfold live on the news. This sweet old couple enjoying the carnage while sipping some tea. Nothing strange about that huh?

You can’t make this stuff up! The elderly couple appear to be just as bloodthirsty as the criminals. Death Wish 3 is close to being a Zucker/Abrams/Zucker movie!

Death Wish 3 1985 gang riot sceneBy the climactic third act your head would ache if you question how things could have escalated into this looney tune-ish neighborhood war. You kind of experience both confusion and exhilaration during it. Only in Cannon Films Land could a film attempt to present this as any sort of reality.

This is a world where it is not possible for anyone to be shot standing on a rooftop or a fire escape and not fall screaming to the street below. It is a place where a gang leader can order he needs more members and instantly a parade of motorcycle hoods arrive to help out.

Wait, is that an English firetruck arriving on the scene? How did Bronson manage to slam a prisoners head through the jail bars at the beginning again? It is a land where you have to just accept the setup that ‘the police can’t do anything about this’ and the only possible solution to end this crime wave is Paul Kersey.

Well, ok. If you say so.

Death Wish 3 Charles Bronson action movie classic cultThe kicker to this is that Winner and the film all play this as completely sincere. There’s no hint that there’s attempted satire going on or of this being specifically planned to be so over-the-top ridiculous it was meant to be taken as comedy. That’s what makes it so good!

It’s so uncomplicated and the approach is so matter-of-fact that it makes it all the more funnier and is probably the reason why its become such a beloved cult movie.

Watching the public defender make her speech flat out stating, “People have to get mad!” is so simplified it’s comical. When we see the old citizen scream out “Blow the scum away!”, we know Kersey has succeeded in not only killing all the bad guys, but inspiring the citizens to cheer him on and embrace his murderous way of thinking!

This fantastic lesson has been brought to you by Cannon Films.

On top of the craziness onscreen, there are a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes stories about the making of Death Wish 3. Or maybe they’re just interesting to me, since I enjoy the film so much and find any aspect to it downright fascinating!

Michael Winner director Charles Bronson Death Wish 3 1985 action movie
Winner & Bronson on set

According to IMDB Cannon decided to change the original title of ‘Death Wish III’ to the more simple Death Wish 3. The reason? In a survey they found that nearly half the U.S. population could not read Roman numerals.

I have no idea if that’s true or not. How frightening a thought is that?. I could understand some folks getting confused by higher number Roman numerals, but by a ‘III”??? It’s just three horizontal lines, what’s so difficult to decipher about that? With that in mind, the film might’ve worried about being too smart for audiences to follow along. That might explain some things.

Led Zepplin’s Jimmy Page is credited on the film as the music composer. However, he never actually wrote any music for the film. According to Page, while editing the film Winner used Page’s Death Wish II music as a placeholder until new music was made for the movie. Winner thought Page’s music worked so well he just left it in. This reuse of Page’s Death Wish II music warranted Page getting a credit for number 3 – even though he never worked on it.

Death Wish 3 1985 Charels Bronson guilty pleasure movie Cannon Films
“Right on Charlie!”

Cannon rushed the release of Death Wish 3 into theaters to coincide with the trial of a real life New York vigilante – Bernard Goetz. The story of Goetz shooting four black muggers captivated the country. This real life news would surely help get the film some extra attention.

Cannon wanted capitalize on the Goetz case and get a new installment of Death Wish out to audiences. Cannon Films’ Menahem Golan said the film was purposely designed to capitalize on the Goetz story. I suppose they were hoping for the film to get ‘ripped from the headlines’ attention. The folks at Cannon were certainly shrewd and never missed an opportunity for promotion.

At the time of its release Death Wish 3 was viewed as punchline. An awful movie with no redeeming qualities. Just another cheap piece of action junk by Cannon. It earned enough to make Cannon a profit, but at the time looked like it would quietly fade away. But as with so many films that were dismissed upon their release, some found magic in them. Death Wish 3 began to gain a ‘cult’ fanbase.

It became a popular VHS rental and played constantly on cable in the 1980s – that’s how I first saw it. Thanks to the Death Wish series continuing with installments of four and five, helped Death Wish 3 to stay on people’s radar. Gradually, it picked up more and more fans as the years went by who would watch and enjoy it for the utter silliness it was.

Charles Bronson star Hollywood walk fame 1980
Bronson in 1980

Bronson wasn’t very proud of Death Wish 3. He didn’t give many interviews throughout his career, but had made dismissive remarks about what he thought of Death Wish 3. He felt the film was too violent for his taste. He didn’t hide his feelings about it.

He wasn’t the only one involved with the film that felt that way. Winner said he didn’t approve of the film’s philosophy of taking the law into one’s own hands. Raffin had said she probably wouldn’t see the movie herself because she didn’t like the violence in it. Winter has appeared at theater screenings of Death Wish 3 fully accepting the quality of it and telling tales about the strange production.

Death Wish 3 was Bronson’s and Winner’s sixth and final collaboration. They had a falling out during filming. It’s still unclear as to what exactly the cause of it was.

Bronson was sixty-four at the time he made Death Wish 3. I’m sure he wanted to stretch and try some different things, but he never got a chance and became stuck in the Cannon assembly line of making cheesy low-grade actioners for the remainder of his career. Cannon did keep him busy and it was work. He was paid 1.5 million bucks for this notorious outing.

Despite them not giving him the best quality of films to star in, Cannon was something of a lifeline to Bronson. There he, along with Chuck Norris, were its biggest stars. I’m not sure if one of the bigger, more respected Hollywood studios would have headlined him in a film in such a way as he was in a Cannon film.

And they unknowingly got him to star in one of the best quintessential, cheesy, schlocky, unintentionally hilarious action movies that came out during the 1980s.

That probably still wouldn’t have made Bronson proud of the movie though. He’d more likely be even more embarrassed by Death Wish 3 knowing fans are still having a hoot watching it today. But hey, I for one am glad he made it.




Alex Winter introduces a screening of Death Wish 3 – he has a great sense of humor about his experiences filming

1 thought on “Death Wish 3 (1985) – A Review

  1. ” He politely excuses himself, walks up to the two gang members and simply shoots them. He then walks back to finish his dinner.”

    Ah, nothing like a few executions to work up an appetite. Lol

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