Paul Kersey is a successful, middle-aged architect and family man who lives happily in Manhattan with his wife, Joanna. One day, Joanna and their grown daughter, Carol—who is married to Jack Toby—are followed home from D'Agostino's by three thugs. The trio invade the Kersey apartment by posing as deliverymen. Upon finding that Carol and Joanna only have $7 on them, the thugs brutally rape Carol and beat Joanna before fleeing. Upon arriving at the hospital, Paul is devastated to learn that Joanna has died from her injuries. Shortly after burying his wife, Paul has an encounter with a mugger in a darkened street. Paul fights back with a homemade weapon, an improvised blackjack made from a sock with two rolls of quarters in it, causing the mugger to run away. Paul is shaken and energized by the encounter. Paul's boss sends him to Tucson, Arizona, to see Ames Jainchill, a client with a residential development project. A few days later, Paul is invited to dinner by Ames at his gun club. Ames is impressed with Paul's pistol marksmanship at the target range. Paul reveals that he was a conscientious objector during the Korean War, when he served as a combat medic. He had been taught to handle firearms by his hunter-father; but after the senior Kersey was mortally wounded by a second hunter (who mistook Paul's father for a deer), Paul's mother made him swear never to use guns again. Paul is successful in helping Ames plan his residential housing development. Ames drives Paul back to Tucson Airport and presents Paul with a gift for his work on the development, which he places into Paul's checked luggage.
Back in Manhattan, Paul learns from Jack that Carol's mind has snapped due to the traumatic rape and her mother's death; Carol is now catatonic, and an elective mute. With Paul's blessing, Jack commits Carol to a mental hospital. Paul learns that Ames has given him a nickel-plated Colt Police Positive revolver and a box of ammunition. He loads it and takes a late-night walk during which he is mugged at gunpoint. Paul fatally shoots the mugger and, in a state of shock, runs home and vomits. The next night, Paul walks through the city looking for dangerous and violent criminals; sure enough, he kills several muggers over the next few weeks, either luring them into a confrontation by presenting himself as an affluent victim, or when he sees them attacking other innocent people. NYPD Inspector Frank Ochoa investigates the vigilante killings. His department narrows it down to a list of men who have had a family member recently killed by muggers, and/or are war veterans. Ochoa soon suspects Paul and is about to make an arrest when the district attorney intervenes and tells Ochoa that "we don't want him." The district attorney and the police commissioner do not want the statistics to get out that Paul's vigilantism has led to a drastic decrease in street crime; they fear that if said information becomes public knowledge, the whole city will descend into vigilante chaos. If Paul is arrested, he will surely be labeled a martyr. Ochoa does not like the idea, but relents and opts for "scaring him off" instead.
One night, Paul shoots two more muggers before being wounded in the leg himself by a third. Paul pursues the third mugger and corners him at a warehouse. He challenges the mugger to a fast draw, Wild West-style, only to faint because of blood loss. The mugger escapes. Paul's gun is discovered by young patrolman Jackson Reilly. Reilly hands the gun to Ochoa, who orders Reilly to forget they found it. The press is informed that Paul is just another mugging victim. Ochoa visits Paul at the hospital where he's recovering, and agrees to surreptitiously dispose of Paul's revolver in exchange for Paul's leaving NYC permanently. Paul takes Ochoa's deal, and his company agrees to transfer him to Chicago. Paul arrives in Chicago Union Station by train. Being greeted by a company representative, he notices a group of hoodlums harassing a young woman. He excuses himself and helps the woman. As the hoodlums make obscene gestures, Paul just smiles while making a finger gun at them.
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