Did DEATH WISH kill gun control?

Once upon a time in America, there was a gun-control debate. Then came Charles Bronson. In 1974′s DEATH WISH — tonight at 10:10P on Sundance Channel — the journeyman character actor shot to superstardom as Paul Kersey, a self-confessed “bleeding-heart liberal” who becomes a pistol-packing urban vigilante after his daughter is raped and his wife is murdered. Made for a modest $3 million, the gritty flick earned back more than seven times its budget and spawned four sequels over the next 20 years. Now director Joe Carnahan (THE GREY) is planning a remake.

Critics decried the original — Roger Ebert called it “propaganda for private gun ownership” — but the images of Bronson stalking the pre-Giuliani (and pre-Travis Bickle) streets of Manhattan, itching to blow away urban decay in the form of human miscreants, proved indelible in popular and political circles.

When Bernhard Goetz gunned down four alleged muggers on a New York subway in 1984, the newspapers quickly dubbed him the “DEATH WISH vigilante.” Four years later, Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis’ dispassionate answer to Bernard Shaw’s DEATH WISH-esque debate question about what he’d do if his wife were raped and murdered was judged one of the major factors in killing his candidacy.

True, there were gun-control laws passed in this country post-DEATH WISH — the now-lapsed “Brady Bill” was named for the press secretary injured in the assassination attempt on one of our most pro-gun presidents, Ronald Reagan. But ultimately, the NRA became such a high-caliber political force, using ammunition like the arguments heard in DEATH WISH, that even a Democratic president like Barack Obama refused to put gun control back on the table after a crazed gunman killed 12 people and injured 59 others at a midnight screening of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES in Aurora, Colorado, this summer.

It’s a testament to the power of DEATH WISH’s filmmaking that it’s as effective a piece of agitprop today as it was nearly 40 years ago. Sleekly directed by Michael Winner, a Brit who’d polished Bronson’s cold-steel persona in THE MECHANIC and THE STONE KILLER, it uses simple yet potent images to build its case for the Second Amendment. The violence is all the more impactful for the fact that it’s not stylized and cleaned-up like in so many movies today. And at a lean, mean 93 minutes, the film is as sinewy as the star himself, who stood alongside recent GOP “chair-man” Clint Eastwood as a representative of the no-longer-silent majority striking back against hoodlums and hippies alike.

The film opens as architect Kersey and his impeccable blond wife (Hope Lange, familiar to audiences from TV’s squeaky-clean THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR) enjoy an idyllic Hawaiian vacation. Soon, they’re back in the urban jungle, where Kersey’s womenfolk are preyed upon by a pack of animalistic attackers — including an unlikely Jeff Goldblum — even as Kersey is at his office, expressing his sympathy for the “underprivileged.”

After the assault leaves Kersey a widower with an institutionalized daughter, he visits a Wild West town developer in Tucson (eerily, the site of last year’s Gabby Giffords shootings) who convinces him to start packing heat: “You can’t own a gun in New York City, but you can walk our streets and feel safe.” Kersey’s viscerally thrilling exploits — set to Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-nominated score — turn him into a national folk hero, and even the most bleeding-heart liberals might find themselves cheering him on.

After all, movies don’t kill people. People kill people. Right?

Catch DEATH WISH tonight at 10:10P on Sundance Channel.

Photo credit: The Paris Review