Blu-Ray Review: 'Death Wish' Sequels Finally Hit Blu-ray (And In Widescreen!)

Death Wish 2 (1982)

Though released eight years after the original "Death Wish" (1974), "Death Wish 2" is set only a few years later. Paul Kersey is still an architect; his daughter, who was institutionalized after being raped and brutalized in the first film, is still in an institution; the justice system is still set up to protect criminals; and degenerate scumbag street-criminals are still in need of killing.

Director Michael Winner (who directed the first three "Death Wish" films) takes this sequel in a completely direction than the first. Contrary to popular belief, the first "Death Wish" isn't a revenge film -- it's the story of a bleeding heart left-wing New Yorker brought down to the reality of the common man after a trio of street thugs break into his fancy Manhattan digs to murder his wife and do unspeakable things to his daughter.

But we will never see those thugs again, nor will vigilante-in-training Paul Kersey (The Mighty Charles Bronson). Instead of seeking revenge, Kersey works out his grief, emotional impotence, and frustration with a feckless justice system, by taking the law into his own hands. Using himself as bait, Kersey walks the city streets at night and guns down any mugger stupid enough to get in his way.

Nope, "Death Wish" has nothing to do with revenge. Though an extremely satisfying entry into the genre of vigilante films, it's a film working with much bigger themes than simple vengeance.

Thankfully, "Death Wish 2" has no such aspirations, which why it's not only the superior entry in this franchise of five superb films, but also The Greatest Vigilante Film Ever Made.

When we left Kersey at the end of "Death Wish," the police had caught him but were forced to let him go. You see, one fed-up man's willingness to take the law into his own hands had done something City Hall couldn't: cut the street-crime rate in half. While city officials couldn't allow Kersey to continue to kill, they also couldn't afford to deal with the resurgent crime wave sure to follow if the criminal population were to learn the vigilante had been captured.

So Kersey was told to leave town and off to Chicago he went. And while we do learn that Kersey caused some trouble in Chicago, the sequel is set in Los Angeles where, as it would happen, another street gang's attack on the mild-mannered architect's family will bring on yet another intensely satisfying reckoning.

"Death Wish 2" is about nothing more than putting 60 year-old Bronson (at the height of his masculinity) in one violent and iconic situation after another. With his life once again blown apart and the cops perfectly useless, by night Kersey dresses from head to toe in black and like a lion hiding in plain sight just outside the herd, prowls Hollywood Boulevard knowing he's bound to come across his prey eventually.

 Paul Kersey: You believe in Jesus...

Punk: Yes, sir, I do.

Paul Kersey: Well, you're gonna meet him.

"Death Wish 2" isn’t about story or character or theme -- it's about a director who understands the power of his star and how to maximize that power. Bronson is so unbelievably bad ass in this film, you can't help but rewind his best moments or the scenes packed with hippies, punks and losers where Bronson steps into the frame with a look of perfect disgust on his face. The contrast is jaw-dropping as is the contempt that blazes in the eyes of one Charles Bronson (a truly underrated actor).

A major benefit to these moments is an unforgettable score, courtesy of Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and a director who knows exactly where to set his camera and how to light his star.

"Death Wish 2" isn't just an extraordinary revenge film, it's also a fascinating time capsule of a flat, generic Los Angeles that no longer exists (it's much dirtier and cluttered now). What probably came off as nothing-special cinematography in 1982, is now one of the films biggest draws.

This new Blu-ray is as bare bones as they come. There's not even a chapter menu. But the transfer is clean and for the first time the film is available in the original  1.85:1 widescreen. Even the previously released DVDs came in full frame.

"Death Wish 2" was produced for $2 million and looks like it. But the low-budget is one of its charms; one of the things that make it work so well. The real number to remember is that it made $45 million worldwide.

That's how good it is.

 

Death Wish 3 (1985)

Michael Winner returns our hero Paul Kersey to New York City. Though Kersey was a conscientious objector during the Korean War, he still has Army buddies and now there's one in trouble who  lives in a rundown tenement terrorized and victimized by a violent street gang. Unfortunately, Kersey arrives to find his friend beaten to death by this same gang.

At first Kersey is arrested for the crime by a crooked police detective, Richard Shriker (Ed Lauter), who uses the threat of being charged with the crime as blackmail against Kersey. Frustrated by a justice system that makes it impossible to bring this gang of thugs down, Shriker recruits Kersey to work for him and clean up the streets.

Obviously, blackmail wasn't necessary. Kersey's eager to avenge his friend and to rain hell on the gang.    

"Death Wish 3" is as different from its predecessor as "Death Wish 2" was from the original. This time Kersey is something closer (by design, no doubt) to "Rambo" as the action scenes grow bigger and bigger until an all-out street war breaks out at the end.

On top of a number of satisfying and iconic Bronson moments, we 're also treated to what can happen to a law-abiding community in a fascist left-wing city like New York where criminals know they can run rampant because guns are outlawed.

Again, the DVD is barebones, but the quality of the widescreen picture and sound is first-rate. What more do you need?

 

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987)

At the age of 65, Bronson shows no signs of slowing down and is once again back in Los Angeles practicing his trade as a mild-mannered architect. For the first time, Michael Winner is not directing. J. Lee Thompson, director of "The Guns of Navarone," has taken over.

In 1987, drugs were a major concern in America and this is the timely theme the story picks up on. Kersey is recruited by a wealthy man who lost a daughter to drugs -- and this is a man with the money and resources to get Kersey close to the crime syndicates who bring the stuff in, distribute it, and make themselves ridiculously wealthy off the misery of it all.

While nowhere near as satisfying as its predecessors, "Death Wish 4" has more than enough going for it (especially the mere presence of Bronson), to make the Blu-ray purchase a must. Like "Death Wish 2," this is also the first home video release of "4" in its original widescreen presentation. 

 

Follow  John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC                                                                                                                       


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