The Most Important Sequence In Cinema History?
If asked to name the most important sequence in cinema history, most scholars fall back on the old standbys: That part in RoboCop where RoboCop shoots that guy in the penis. That part in The Killer where Chow Yun-Fat shoots that guy in the penis. That part in Sin City where Bruce Willis shoots that guy in the penis. That part in Hobo with a Shotgun where Rutger Hauer shoots that guy in the penis. That part in True Romance where Christian Slater shoots that guy in the penis. That part in Pulp Fiction where Ving Rhames shoots that guy in the penis. That part in Django Unchained where Jamie Foxx shoots that guy in the penis. That part in The Hateful Eight where Channing Tatum shoots that guy in the penis. These are all defensible choices and no true film connoisseur would judge you for picking one or all of them as the pinnacle of the craft.
But I would argue that the most important film moments are those that reveal deep cultural truths while cleverly stepping outside of what William Goldman called the “bullet right to the fucking cock” template of screenwriting. As such, the Death Wish franchise is a sly subversion of expectations — you spend the entire series assuming you’re going to see someone get shot hardcore in the penis, but it never happens! No, really! Go back and watch!
What this franchise does give us is what I personally consider the Most Important Sequence in Cinema History, which occurs around forty minutes into the third film. It’s a series of scenes that you’ve seen even if you’ve never seen them. You’ve seen them in the eyes of every red-blooded American male who sleeps with an AR-15 and 12,000 rounds of ammunition under the bed in case those teens try to vandalize the mailbox again.
First, some quick background: In 1972, an author named Brian Garfield wrote a horror novel called Death Wish about a mild-mannered white guy whose wife is tragically killed in a mugging. Insane with grief, the man takes to the streets with a gun, setting lethal traps for muggers and becoming more and more unhinged until he’s literally gunning down children just for the hell of it. It’s a cautionary tale about how vigilantism is a ridiculous, psychotic fantasy for shitheads. Then Hollywood came calling and, well, they had some notes.
In 1974, the novel was made into an action movie franchise starring Charles Bronson as cool badass Paul Kersey, who totally solves urban crime by gleefully killing at least 116 cartoonishly evil street criminals across five increasingly ridiculous movies. The author was so mortified by this that he wrote a mournful sequel novel that stated even more overtly that vigilantes are no better than the street criminals they’re hunting, which I believe was adapted into the 1997 film Double Team starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman.
Oh, and before we get into the deranged all-American fantasy that is Death Wish 3, I need to clear up something that’s going to confuse my younger readers. While today’s action heroes look like this:
…back in my day, they looked like this:
As you can see, the ideal of American masculinity has shifted over time in ways that are profound and yet difficult to understand if you’ve never smelled a phone booth. Let’s put it this way: Charles Bronson is only 23 years old in that photo.
So, 1985’s Death Wish 3 opens in a New York neighborhood being terrorized by flamboyant 1980s gang violence. Said gang beats Paul Kersey’s best friend to death, which just so happens to occur on the exact day and hour that Kersey is coming to visit the city for the first time in a decade. This is the kind of coincidence that is usually fixed if a script has a second draft, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today.
The cops accuse Kersey of the crime, but then the main police guy makes him a deal: He will let Kersey go if he agrees to murder all of the “creeps” in said neighborhood for him. “You work for me now,” he says, the audience trembling with the anticipation of seeing a whole lot of lead inserted into a whole lot of pencils.
Kersey agrees to become an unpaid serial killer for the state with a casual nod, then strides into the street to begin his work. Within 25 seconds, he sees a man being thrown out of a window, then his attention is immediately torn away by a mugger who kicks a woman in the vagina and steals her purse. Kersey picks up a pipe and chases him and, in the process, runs into an unrelated sex predator so enflamed with psychotic lust that he is raping a woman’s car. Hey, it’s Alex Winter!
Having detected that the neighborhood does seem to have a crime problem, Kersey does some reconnaissance of the local gang. In the process, we get an unflinching look at America’s nightmarish urban decay. I’m actually going to break from Death Wish 3 for a moment to show you actual video of 80s-era New York street violence, captured by bystanders moments before their deaths. WARNING: It is literally illegal for anyone to watch this:
It is established that the first big bad he has to take down is a purse-snatcher known as The Giggler, so named because he laughs when he runs off with the victim’s valuables, which is actually kind of endearing. He knows the world is full of whimsy and that most of us are too weighed down by our physical possessions to see it. Kersey says that the Giggler runs much too fast for him to catch, but that his friend “Wildey” is coming to help.
Kersey then pays cash for a cheap used car, telling a friend that he’s using it as bait. Sure enough, a pair of neighborhood “creeps” try to steal it and Kersey shoots both of them dead. We then see the gang go on a rampage with chains and baseball bats, which I mention only so I can point out that this dude brought a plunger:
We cut back to the main police guy, saying, “The streets are full of degenerates, killing each other indiscriminately!” I want you to keep that phrase in mind, because we’ve now pulled into the junk-strewn parking lot of The Most Important Sequence In Cinema History:
It begins when Paul Kersey goes to the post office and picks up a package, smiling down at it like a proud new father:
He opens it in front of some of the frightened victims of the gang-ravaged neighborhood to reveal the “Wildey” he said was coming to help is, in fact, the brand of gun he has just purchased through the mail.
Just to be clear, he already had a gun — he used it against the car thieves earlier and it took exactly two bullets to send both of them to Hell. As for why this particular gun is going to be the turning point in this neighborhood’s struggle against crime, Kersey explains that it,
“Fires a .475 Wildey magnum. Real stopping power … a .475 Wildey magnum is a shorter version of the African big game cartridge. Makes a real mess.”
… and you just have to understand that a white guy promising to clean up New York crime with a gun intended to kill “African big game” was about as subtle as dog whistles got in the Reagan era. I would say that it was a different time but it totally wasn’t.
The next scene is a brutal gang rape that results in the death of the victim but not before the camera lingers on her bare breasts, because action audiences used to riot if they didn’t get at least one of that scene. Kersey, in response, takes a walk down to the corner shop with an expensive camera draped over his shoulder, as bait. The Giggler runs up, steals the camera and runs away, giggling playfully like a girl on the playground who’s stolen the hat off a boy she likes. Kersey shoots him right in the fucking back…
…at which point the entire neighborhood comes to their windows and starts applauding:
Inspirational music plays. The tide has turned. For you see, before the streets were, “… full of degenerates, killing each other indiscriminately,” but the shooting they just witnessed was clearly an example of something other than that.
And that’s it. I mean, there’s more movie after that, but it’s superfluous. One could argue that perhaps all subsequent movies were. Just for the record, Kersey (who upgrades to a belt-fed Browning machine gun and then finally a bazooka) goes on to kill dozens of gang members until the surviving creeps flee the neighborhood, solving the problem forever.
Look, nobody wants me to show up on 1-900-HOTDOG and get all political. I’m not going to preach at you about how violence never solves anything in real life. For one, I’m literally here promoting a novel called Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick and two, I realize that there is only one known cure for acute Unshot Penis Syndrome and that we can all name someone who has it. If you guys all chipped in to buy me a Wildey .475 for Christmas, for the rest of my life it would feature prominently in both my author photos and daydreams.
But this sequence is important because it’s still the exact fantasy that runs on a loop through the head of every fourth dude you pass on the street in 2020. Keep in mind, the character of Paul Kersey is not an ex-CIA operative like Liam Neeson in Taken. He’s not a retired assassin like John Wick, he’s not even an ex-cop like John McClane. He hasn’t in any way put the work in of being a badass — he’s just a former architect who looks like this:
He is a superhero whose superpower is the ability to order a gun from a catalog and all he needs to clean up the degenerates is permission from the stuffy jerks in charge. If you ever feel like you don’t understand America or Americans, my advice is to go watch Death Wish 3 over and over until you do.
* In real-life 1985 New York, around nine people were murdered every two days. In the couple of days Kersey spent in town, he gunned down 44 youths in one orgasmic, crime-solving rampage. If this had actually occurred, it would still be known as the third-largest mass shooting in history.
* The ridiculous mail-order gun Kersey/Bronson uses was invented by a guy named Wildey Moore, who made a career out of building grossly impractical guns that no one could afford until he got the fateful call from the director of Death Wish 3 asking to use that pistol in the movie. As soon as the film premiered, Americans rushed to buy the gun in real life — Moore supposedly said sales spiked every time the film aired on cable. He also ran for senate multiple times and his campaign materials were exactly what you would expect:
Jason “David Wong” Pargin is the ex-executive editor at Cracked.com and is now a full time novelist, his violent sci-fi adventure Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick is up for pre-order now! Or buy one of his previous books, they’re all pretty good.