The original Death Wish came out in 1974, post-Dirty Harry (1971) pre Taxi Driver (1976), a time when the urban white vigilante “taking out the trash” story still seemed like a fresh idea (I assume). Charles Bronson, who had a great beach bod and a face like Burt Reynolds looking at the Ark of the Covenant, plays Paul Kersey, a New York City engineer for a housing developer and “bleeding-heart liberal,” according to his boss. In their only scene together, they discuss all the murders of the previous week:
BOSS: Decent people will have to live elsewhere.
PAUL: You mean, people who can afford to.
BOSS: Christ, you’re such a bleeding-heart liberal.
PAUL: My heart bleeds for the underprivileged, yeah.
BOSS: “The underprivileged” are beating our brains out. I say stick ’em in concentration camps.
The idea is simple: What happens to a “bleeding heart” like Paul when his wife gets murdered by those same underprivileged? Or more specifically, by Jeff Goldblum in a Jughead crown? The answer, according to the movie, is he goes nuts and kills a bunch of criminals and the city kind of loves him for it. This was partly a reactionary response to the counterculture of the ’60s and its perceived disrespect to traditional institutions (see: Nixon and Reagan’s “law and order” campaigns), partly a response to actual rising crime and urban blight. Sure, Death Wish seemed to ask, you can say you sympathize with the underprivileged, but what happens when it’s you they’re robbing? Which is either an extremely Republican origin story or a satirical skewering of certain strands of fashionable liberalism that weren’t as enlightened as they pretended (see: “Holiday In Cambodia”). Or maybe a little of both.