[Wednesday would have been Charles Bronson’s 100th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Bronson and other action film stars and characters. Share your own thoughts on these and all other action figures and films for a popcorn-popping crowd-sourced weekend blockbuster!]
On one famous contemporary legacy of Bronson’s watershed role, and a surprising 21st century one.
I said much of what I’d want to say overall about vigilante heroes in this post on the comic book (and frequently adapted) character The Punisher, so in lieu of this first paragraph I’d ask you to check out that post if you would and then come on back here.
My focus there was largely on the pop culture figures and stories themselves, but Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey, the mild-mannered architect and Korean War conscientious objector (because he had promised his mother never to use a gun after his father was killed in a tragic hunting accident, natch) turned vigilante angel of vengeance in Death Wish (1974) and its many sequels, reflects all too clearly the way that such vigilantes can inspire real-world violence. Bernhard Goetz, the mild-mannered electronics salesman who shot four would-be muggers (probably, although just about every detail of the incident was and remains contested) on a New York subway in December 1985, was overtly inspired by Kersey’s fictional character and was instantly dubbed the “Death Wish” gunman as a result. Moreover, while Kersey vomits after his first act of vigilante violence (at least a bit of a nod to the more overtly anti-vigilante themes of the film’s source material, Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel), Goetz told police “I would have kept shooting had I not run out of bullets. I should have gouged [one of his victim’s] eyes out with my car keys.” Like so many fans of these vigilante characters and stories, Goetz clearly came away with one particular and unambiguous lesson.
It took a bit longer, but Hollywood seems likewise to have learned its own clear lesson from the success of Death Wish. Bronson was 53 years old when the film came out, and it led to a late-career renaissance for the long-time actor, one that focused almost entirely on such action hero roles (including in those four Death Wish sequels over the next 20 years, with the last coming out in 1994 when Bronson was 73!). That seems to be a clear model for a number of 21st century film franchises featuring well-established and often overtly serious actors playing badass vigilantes, from Liam Neeson’s Taken films to Denzel Washington’s Equalizer ones among many others. In both those franchises, like in many of these films, the protagonists are former special forces types, men (and occasionally women) whose “particular set of skills” has perhaps lain dormant for a time but was always part of their identities and stories. Whether that makes their late-life turn to vigilante violence less problematic or more so is, like so many of the issues raised by Charles Bronson’s Death Wish and its legacies, a complex yet crucial question for all film buffs and AmericanActionStudiers.
Next action figure tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these figures and films, or others you’d add to the mix?