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Paul Kersey vs. Harry Callahan – Who’s the King of the Armed Seventies Anti-Heroes?

The seventies were a hellish time. Crackheads, prostitutes, costumed gangs, and an assortment of street toughs roamed America’s cities, indiscriminately killing, stealing, and raping. Well, at least at the movies. Into this nightmarish void stepped two vigilantes who took matters into their own hands: Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) of Death Wish and “Dirty” Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood). Fueled by a hatred of perps, a furious desire for vengeance, and a general attitude of being fed up with the state of the streets, the two warriors cracked a lot of skulls and did more to cut crime than most full police forces. So the real question is which titan of vigilantism is the best? We break it down, then you decide.

Who’s Got the Better Motivation?
Dirty Harry is one of movie history’s true curmudgeons, a grumpy old man with a sweet hairdo and a .44 Magnum. Crime on his San Fransisco streets? Heck no. Corruption in the police department? No way. Dirty Harry just isn’t going to stand for that. Paul Kersey? He’s just out for vengeance. The guy’s neither a cop, nor a soldier, nor a PI; he’s just an unusually badass architect motivated by the murder of his wife (and, later, his daughter and his housekeeper and the overdose of his girlfriend’s daughter).
Winner: Kersey

Whose Crime-Stopping Strategy Is Craziest?
Dirty Harry walks a fine line between legal police work and outright vigilantism. Yeah, he’s a fully accredited officer of the San Fransisco police force (except the 50 percent of the time when he seems to be suspended), but he knows that sometimes you have to break the rules to track down sick serial killers, terrorists, or fellow cops on the take. Kersey, on the other hand, simply hits the streets in pursuit of vengeance, taking out each and every perp he can lay his hands on. No criminal on the streets of New York or Los Angeles is safe from Kersey’s wrath.
Winner: Kersey

Who’s More Stylish?
Both of these guys are pretty formal for people who spend their lives roaming bad neighborhoods, interrogating, beating, or killing. There are a lot of seventies-era brown suits involved. Honestly, is it even worth extracting your revenge on a gang member if you’re not wearing a tie? But Kersey often dons black spy gear as he prowls for vengeance, whereas Dirty Harry is nearly always impeccably dressed: a coat, a tie, and sometimes a funky sweater-vest. The guy with the tie wins this round.
Winner: Dirty Harry

Who’s Got the Better One-Liners?
Kersey knows how to give a good speech to distill his philosophy, and in Death Wish he does just that, saying, “Nothing to do but cut and run, huh? What else? What about the old American social custom of self-defense? If the police don’t defend us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves.” But even adding that to a number of awesome kill quotations, he just can’t compare to the brilliant quips of Dirty Harry. It goes beyond “Go ahead — make my day”: there’s “‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?” and a dozen more awesome lines. Harry’s the clear winner here.
Winner: Dirty Harry

Does Either Have a Soft Side?
Paul Kersey loves his wife and daughter (and maybe his housekeeper) so much that he loses his mind and wanders around killing any bad guy he can get his hands on. He seems like a pretty loving — if mentally unstable — guy. Callahan? Um, not so much. The softest side you ever see of Dirty Harry is when he only mildly scoffs at his female partner (Tyne Daly) in The Enforcer and, after making it clear that he doesn’t trust a woman on the police force, tries to protect her.
Winner: Kersey

The Actor Behind the Anti-Hero
Charles Bronson is great, a true legend and the star of the Death Wish franchise, as well Once Upon a Time in the West, The Dirty Dozen, and Death Hunt. The man known as Il Bruto is one of the original onscreen tough guys. But Clint Eastwood is, well, Clint Eastwood, arguably the most prolific actor of the last 50 years: Dirty Harry, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Hang ‘Em High, Escape From Alcatraz, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby. We could go on, but what’s the point? Eastwood is the guy.
Winner: Dirty Harry

Final Score
Surprise, surprise: we have a tie, at 3-3. Now you can decide, once and for all, which movie vigilante is truly the greatest.


Check out a different Death Wish movie each night this week with AMC’s Can’t Get Enough Death Wish. Tonight, Tue., Sep. 14, watch Death Wish II, at 8PM | 7C and 10PM | 9C.

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