‘Death Wish’ Never Solves The Riddle Of Why It Should Exist


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.

CNN recently aired a series on Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped by the SLA five months before the release of Death Wish. It didn’t take long for Hearst to go from heiress to revolutionary, which seemed to speak to the low regard the general public had for the US government at the time. If a woman with such a perfect life could be turned into a terrorist so quickly, what did that say about everyone else? During one of the SLA’s bank robberies, the group shot and killed Myrna Opsahl, a mother of four, whose doctor husband was on call and ended up being the last to try and fail to save her life.

Opsahl’s killing didn’t happen until a year later, but Death Wish, without knowing it at the time, seemed to be trying to imagine what would happen to a person who sympathized with the SLA’s message but then had to watch their wife die because of their actions. I also mention this because, in the new version, Paul Kersey (now played by Bruce Willis, who has neither a melting face nor a great beach body) is no longer a construction engineer but an emergency room doctor who faces a situation much like Opsahl’s. Which… updates the remake, in a way, but not quite to the present.

Context matters, obviously, and the big question for a Death Wish remake in 2018 is… why? How is the white urban vigilante narrative still relevant now that inner cities are more concerned with gentrification than white flight, and all those Boomer revolutionaries have long since answered the question of what they would do if they were the ones being robbed (answer: watch a lot of Fox News, build a bomb shelter in the backyard, and spend a lot of time complaining about how millennials are a bunch of whiny pussies)? The most succinct review I can give this version, (directed by Eli Roth and written by Joe Carnahan, two guys at least capable of making good movies, if not consistently), is that I watched the whole thing and I still have no idea why they wanted to make it.

Was it for the gore? The graphic death scenes are the times when you can most palpably sense Roth having fun, and the gore is fun, kind of, but it feels more like the kind of fun you have when you’re trying to pass the time while completing a chore. Anyway, what would’ve been the inspiration there? “This will be just like the original Death Wish, but with grosser deaths!”

The gore and occasional zoom shots (the first Roth’s innovation, the second an homage to the original) and deliberately dingy lighting make you feel like you’re watching a grindhouse homage like the trailer Roth directed between Death Proof and Planet Terror. Only… Death Wish never gets all that trashy or lurid. Am I supposed to laugh at this? Commiserate with Bruce? Watch it like a regular action movie? It’s not funny enough to laugh at, believable enough to commiserate with, and as an action movie it falls somewhere between stylized schlock and realism. When Bruce Willis cries about his dead wife while being consoled by his brother (Vincent D’Onofrio), it sort of just feels like what it is: good actors reading kind of bad lines. Are they supposed to be bad? Vince and Bruce don’t seem to know if this is supposed to be satire either.

Was the idea to try to make Death Wish without social commentary? First of all that’s stupid: Death Wish is inextricably linked to its social context. Secondly, there are hints throughout that Death Wish is kind of, sort of, maybe supposed to contain some type of social commentary. When Kersey goes to buy a gun, he’s greeted by a hot blonde made up Tomi Lahren-style, who shows him some “tactical furniture,” like a coffee table with a hidden compartment for your semi-automatic rifle (GRR, DON’T CALL IT AN “ASSAULT RIFLE”). The setting this time around is Chicago (see also: Chi-raq; the place constantly invoked by rightwingers as a cesspit of urban crime), and throughout, Bruce’s latest acts of vigilantism are bookended by scenes of the city’s morning DJs, Sway and Mancow, debating whether this vigilante is hero or villain.

Aside from the fact that we’ve seen this scene in enough Batman movies for it to have lost all meaning, the debates all seem toothless and timid compared to the original, which contains a scene in which two rich white partygoers argue over the vigilante’s mission.

PARTYGOER 1: The guy’s a racist. He kills more blacks than whites.

PARTYGOER 2: More blacks are muggers. You want to up the proportion of white muggers to have racial equality?

Those kinds of scenes are provocative and live right on the line of what’s even acceptable in a movie (see also: the de rigueur-for-the-’70s titillating rape scene). Which I have to assume was a big part of what Roth liked about the original. But in 2018, you can feel Roth strain to be provocative when constrained by the current media environment, when even the most outlandishly racist thing a character could say has become a quasi-mainstream talking point. It’s much harder to get away with characters doing “problematic” things anymore, even if they’re just supposed to be characters. It’s hard to exaggerate your opponent’s rhetoric as parody anymore because there’s little outlandish enough that someone hasn’t already said it, for real. Straw men are real now, just check Twitter or YouTube. And so Roth softens it to fit the times. But in so doing, he loses any sense that he’s getting at the collective dark heart of the American public (no “blacks do more muggings,” no “put poor people in concentration camps”). And then it has no meaning at all, and Roth tries to overcompensate with the only acceptable provocation still available to him: excess gore.

There are occasional flashes of the Roth I loved in Cabin Fever. Like a more genre version of Richard Linklater (cinema’s foremost Dumbass Whisperer), Roth is brilliant whenever he’s shooting blunt meatheads. A scene early in Death Wish where Bruce Willis confronts a soccer heckler is probably the movie’s best, as is one where the cop (Dean Norris) is pleading with a young bystander not to post her vigilante video to social media. They’re both perfectly stylized, schlock expressions of the zeitgeist, with dialogue that really thumps, in a way that makes the rest of the film feels like music playing in another room. The occasional good scenes make you wonder what could’ve been, had Roth’s (and Carnahan’s) instincts been applied to a story that made sense to tell in 2018.

Trying to do Death Wish in 2018 was either wildly ambitious or foolhardy, or just another craven attempt at intellectual property maintenance. I want to believe it wasn’t the latter. Roth always seems genuine and engaging (he did a short intro that ran before our screening that was, as I’ve generally found him to be in the past, funny and charming). Whatever the case, Roth and Carnahan’s motivations here remain murky and Death Wish never justifies its existence. Divorced of context, it’s like sauce and tomato without the burger.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.