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Death Wish

After enjoying recent DEATH WISH ripoffs and spinoffs like DEATH SENTENCE and THE BRAVE ONE, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the source, and to see those sequels I never got around to watching. (By the source I mean the first Charles Bronson movie and not the book by Brian Garfield, which is apparently similar but clearly anti-vigilante in the end – that’s why he wrote the sequel Death Sentence, because he was so mad about the DEATH WISH movie.)

Charles Bronson plays Paul Kersey, New York architect, happily married father, “bleeding heart liberal,” Korean War veteran with conscientious objector status. A cool guy. Then one day a gang of hoodlums (including Jeff Goldblum in his first movie role) follow Paul’s wife and daughter home from the grocery store and rape them. Mrs. Kersey dies and the daughter is so traumatized she’s hospitalized in a near catatonic state.

Death WishPaul’s annoying son-in-law (who calls him “dad” way too much for comfort) convinces Paul to take an opportunity to go work on a project in Tucson to get away from it all. Hanging out with ranchers he ends up going to the gun range, where he gets a condescending lecture about how the city wouldn’t be so violent if everybody had guns like out here. When he leaves they give him a gun as a gift. So, uh, that might end up being used for something. Who knows?

Of course Kersey ends up in a one man war against crime, going out late at night waiting for people to try to mug him so he can shoot them with his new gun. It makes him feel good. Strangely, he never ends up tracking down or even trying to track down the dudes who attacked his family. Since this was the start of the urban vigilante formula it hadn’t yet occurred to them that that was a good way to make the story satisfying. Or maybe they just knew it was unrealistic. That didn’t become a part of the formula until part 2.

Obviously nobody likes bullies, and this was at a time when crime was fairly rampant in alot of major cities, so it hit a chord with alot of people. Anybody who ever gets fucked over fantasizes about getting revenge. But the manipulation of the movie is pretty blatant, the way it openly states that Kersey is a “bleeding heart liberal” and basically says that all his values were wrong and now he knows since his wife was killed.

Being made in a more sexist era the portrayals of his wife and daughter are pretty embarrassing to look at now. Obviously an attack like this is deeply scarring but the wife seems to die of fear and the daughter quickly reverts to the mental state of a little girl. She’s even that way years later in part 2. It’s reinforcing this fantasy for the Tucson ranchers that women are helpless little fragile waifs and that a man’s primary job in life is to violently protect them from other predators.

If the movie wanted to really make the vigilantism argument credibly it wouldn’t have to stack the deck the way it does, with the hoodlums being these silly cartoons who run around hooting and giggling and randomly attacking people for fun. If that’s the way the filmatists see street crime then you gotta figure they’re just paranoid, they wet their pants every time they see a longhair or a black guy, then run home and tell their friends they just barely dodged a gang rape. This movie definitely exploits our basest and most paranoid instincts. (I mean jesus, check this out.)

But you know what? I still dig this movie. Bronson is so good at these type of characters that I accept him more like he’s a real guy who went a little crazy in a bad circumstances than as thinly veiled audience manipulating right wing fantasy time. So I forgive him. And for such exploitation the filmatism is pretty classy. The elegant and sometimes funky score by Herbie Hancock goes a long way toward making it work. Apparently director Michael Winner’s girlfriend gave him the Headhunters album and convinced him to get Herbie. Good job Michael Winner’s girlfriend at the time(aka Maria from Sesame Street).

And although the movie seems to be coming out on the side of vigilantism, you gotta acknowledge that there is some ambiguity there, the way at the end Kersey has completely lost it and he starts spouting cliches from the western stunt show he saw earlier. To me it seems to be saying that what he’s doing is at least in part inspired by that blatantly fake world – rehearsed, lipsynched, acted out for tourists. And maybe that’s why he takes his chance to leave New York instead of dying or committing suicide like alot of people would after a crazy rampage like that. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t really have a death wish.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Saturday, February 23rd, 2008 at 10:32 am and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

58 Responses to “Death Wish”

  1. Bronson was so good in everything he did. I recently saw 10 TO MIDNIGHT, one of the Golan-Globus productions from 83′ I think. It’s fairly standard in that he wants to catch a serial killer, but with little quirks that make it unique. The killer has to be nude when he kills for one thing, and the endings pretty good. Worth seeing.

  2. We all know someone’s bound to remake this in the near future. It’s too recognizable a title to escape the machine. So if it’s inevitable, a small contingent of knowledgeable individuals such as ourselves should have a say in casting.

    I’m going with Nick Nolte. Discuss.

  3. Nah, the cool thing about Bronson is that he’s kind of a normal, intellegent guy in the first film. It’s obvious he’s a badass but he doesn’t flaunt it, he wears a suit most of the movie and really pulls off the idea that he’s kind of a quiet, thoughtful guy who just snaps at his sense of powerlessness against the forces of evil. Nolte isn’t going to be as sympathetic or believable as a normal, well-adjusted, happy husband (although he’s be good as the vigilante).

    If they must remake DEATH WISH (andI fear you’re right that it’s inevitable), I suggest they go more in the spirit of the book and cast a sort of neutral everyman in the role (it was originally going to go to Jack Lemmon, apparently!). You can’t out-man Charles Bronson, it simply cannot be done. Maybe they could do one of those fancy Hollywood honorary casting deals like with SLEUTH and make Jeff Goldbum the new Vigilante? If not that, the only thing to do is do what they did with Bronson in the first place and take some lesser-known older tough guy and give him a major starring role. Rutger Hauer, say, or Delroy Lindo or something.

  4. See, part of my wanting cast Nolte was so they could hose him down and clean him up for the beginning of the movie. Put a tie on him, comb his hair, give him a shave. Nolte used to be believable as a romantic lead, remember. There’s got to be a charming older gentleman buried under all that crazy. Then by the end of the movie he’s a snarling fiend for vengeance, which we all know will be beyond awesome.

    And they kind of already did the average joe becomes a vigilante thing in Death Sentence (which I’m sure you’re aware was based on the book that Death Wish 2 was not based on). If they’re going to remake Death Wish, remake fucking Death Wish. Put a tough guy in a suit and try to make me believe that he’s a bleeding-heart liberal. Then give him a gun and let his true nature shine through.

    I was thinking Rutger Hauer, too, but he’s just a little too cold for the role, I think.

  5. Oh fuck, I just realized that Ed Harris would suit both of our needs perfectly.

  6. Ed Harris HELL yeah. If Ed Harris were out on the street with a shotgun I wouldn’t fucking break the rules of a game of solitaire.

  7. Couldn’t they cast any of these people in a crazy revenge fantasy, not call it Death Wish and keep everyone happy? I would agree with Harris, that guy is so under utilized in movies. He shows, reminds everyone that he is better then pretty much anyone else, then disappears again. Seriously, Ed, do more movies. I love you.

  8. Of course they could, and I’d be all for it. But they won’t. They’ll remake DEATH WISH because, you know, it’s a movie that exists.

  9. True, true. Strange days we’re living in.

  10. Watched this for the first time last night, overall thought it was pretty great. Oddly enough I thought the “oh you knee jerk liberal” stuff was so blatent that watching now it seems almost as if it’s mocking them, rather than criticising Kersey. I doubt that was the case, but it did add a more anti-vigilante slant to the film for me. Funny how times change things. Oh and what a badass closing shot the film had, seriously cool.

    I don’t know if you know this Vern, but over in the UK Michael Winner has minor celebrity status as a refined english gent/food critic, who also sells car insurance. In his adverts (he directed them himself) he’d be involved in some minor car accident, the woman driving the other car would start trying to get his attention and he’d say “calm down dear, it’s only a commercial”. I can’t find the original on youtube anywhere, but here’s an annoying dance remix someone made:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojyY-SC4t74

    He’s also recently began a TV show called Michael Winner’s Dining Stars, where he gets invited to a dinner party, and then afterwards scores them on it. He acts kind of like a cross between Gordon Ramsey and Simon Cowell, just being a complete dick, but everyone bows to his every wish because he’s the expert/one they want to please. So yeah, it’s really fucking bizarre to see this guy and also know that he directed many action films starring Charles Bronson, I didn’t believe it at first and just assumed they were two different guys with the same name.

  11. GoodBadGroovy – The way I hear it, Michael Winner is an ultraconservative asshole, so I doubt those jabs at Kersey were meant as anything but a mocking of his pansy liberal tendecies, before he decides to SPOILER man up. On the other hand, I think Bronson does a good job playing his liberal side as just as manly — so much so that when people mock him for it, they seem ridiculous. He’s obviously already comfortable with who he is (he doesn’t even feel the need to argue the point with his asshole co-workers) that it’s not like the usual archetype where a wimp becomes a man by learning not to fear the gun. It’s almost more that this nice, well adjusted guy loses his humanity and his ability to empathize with anyone who challenges him.

    Again, I think Winner thought he was making the opposite point, and maybe Bronson did too (I don’t know anything about his politics). But the framework of this type of vigilante movie was new and I dont think they quite figured out how to make it look as acceptable as movies today do. Case in point: he never kills Jeff Goldblum. He goes around murdering unrelated people as a means of catharsis. Nowadays, when they make it personal they assure you he’s going after the people who wronged him. Seems kind of saner.

  12. Bronson was pretty much pro-vigilante, I believe, at least when the first film came out. When someone first told him the plot of DEATH WISH, his reply was, “I’d like to do that.”

    “The movie?” asked the other person.

    “No, shoot muggers.”

    Then there was his on Johnny Carson promoting the film where he came right out and said that if anyone fucked with his family he’d kill them. Johnny laughed at first, but Bronson wasn’t joking. Don’t fuck with his family or he’ll kill you. End of story.

  13. Reminds me that story which Alex Cox (REPO MEN) related about how when the set of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST found out that RFK got shot, Jason Robards was openly crying while Bronson was clapping.

  14. hi,
    currently sitting and watching DEATH WISH for the first time and need to seriously vent about the son-in-law referring to Kersey as “dad” in every breath. My god how did this dialogue get past first draft, writers meetings, rehearsals, shooting and editing. Did they not notice how incredibly unrealistic, uncomfortable and brain-crushingly annoying it was. If they do remake, please, please, please remove all the “dads”.

  15. Just re-watched this tonight , because I’m in a Bronson mood . This was right after The Mechanic and Once Upon a Time in the West ( my god , Claudia Cardinale was hot!) . One thing I didn’t remember of Death Wish was the soundtrack , and my god is it good . It’s a slow start , it’s not a kick in the nuts like Pelam 1 2 3 , but when it picks up during the movie , you notice it and it’s beautiful , without stealing the show , without overshadowing the images . In that regard , it’s one of the best soundtracks ever.

  16. I just love the director’s name. I can picture the studio head right now, excited over a new project, “We’ve got another Winner!”

  17. Here’s the commerical referred to a few posts up

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efl5pFTFnBU&feature=related

    I don’t know why, but for some reason it reminded me of this…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efl5pFTFnBU&feature=related

  18. Michael Winner died today. A divisive personality in the UK to say the least, and certainly not the most technically gifted director, but I for one will miss him.

  19. I will miss the 70’s Winner, that’s for sure.

  20. RIP Michael Winner. I enjoyed a number of his films and his occasional smackdown of TV arseholes.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RS5S2Dio2_Y&feature=player_embedded

  21. I just thought I add a link to the original German poster in here: http://www.filmonpaper.com/posters/death-wish-a1-germany/

    Proceed.

  22. That looks like the perfect paperback cover.

  23. A MAN SEES RED, huh? It’s callad that in Denmark too. In Norway it was named NÅDELØS BY (RUTHLESS CITY).

  24. It did?

  25. If Bruce doesn’t sport a mustache it will seem incomplete.

  26. There are plenty of ways they can make a decent film out of this. Everyone seems to forget that Winner’s movie pretty much falls apart in the third act. But why does every Bronson remake that comes along have to star a baldy? The man WAS hair!

  27. I think they should cast jesse Eisenberg as Paul hersey as young KID. he was bullied in school, until one day he had enough. DEATH WISH; THE WONDER YEARS

  28. Remember that Bronson didn’t age in the same way as the rest of us. He was forty when he played a young man in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and worked as a police officer until he was 78 in FAMILY OF COPS III. He also beame a father in that movie! So Eisenberg can maybe play Kersey when he went to kindergarten, but that’s about it.

  29. i have no idea how to properly link to things on this here sight but this is the first trailer for the Roth/Willis DEATH WISH remake which i honestly believed was never gonna get off the ground but guess what it did and here it is for what it’s worth

  30. haha oh god i failed again – anyway it’s out there if you wanna watch it

  31. i’m really hoping that the tone of the trailer doesn’t reflect the tone of the actual film itself but i’m going to go ahead and guess that it completely and totally does. full disclosure: GREEN INFERNO and KNOCK KNOCK were tied for worst pieces of shit i saw in whatever year i saw them and out of everything Ross has dropped i really only kind of like HOSTEL 2 but i honestly don’t think that is affecting my negative feelings towards this new one.

    it did make me want to go in for yet another re-watch of DEATH SENTENCE though so i should at least thank it for that.

  32. Death Wish Trailer #1 (2017) | Movieclips Trailers

    Death Wish Trailer #1 (2017): Check out the new trailer starring Bruce Willis, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Elisabeth Shue! Be the first to watch, comment, and sha...

  33. I got your back Mixalot.

    Couple of thoughts that ran through my head.

    1. Having lived in Chicago and been in the area my entire life, I don’t really like this trivializing of the Chicago violence in order to have Bruce Willis kill a bunch of people. This really felt like a Trump MAGA white guy fantasy then anything else. This doesn’t really surprise me because Eli Roth seems like he is a Trump MAGA supporter and hates liberal causes. Same with Bruce Willis obviously. I really feel like there was a time and a place for this type of movie and I”m not sure now is the right time. Obviously this is just based on a trailer so the movie could be completely different. However, I don’t trust Eli Roth to make a good movie since I would argue he’s batting .000.

    2. What would John McClane think of Paul Kersey?

  34. 2) Think of him as a crazy person probably.

  35. thank you Sternshein. i feel like we’re talking the same language where this trailer is concerned too.

  36. Mix, it’s an Eli Roth NRA porno “America Fuck Yeah” masturbation fantasy, at least from the looks of it.

  37. Damn that looked wick wick wack. Sadly I’ll like still end up seeing it in theaters. Sometimes I’m part of the problem. It’s just I always hold out a little hope for Bruce. I know I shouldn’t cause he’s definitely in that drunk uncle phase some movie stars go through. He’s down for whatever. Sometimes I just hope the law of probability blessed him with something that ends up watchable.

  38. Guys, Eli Roth isn’t a Trumper or even a conservatives. He’s a South Park centrist who more or less has liberal beliefs but hates being told he can’t make offensive jokes and pretends he’s the only one with the common sense and clearheadedness to see through all the political jibber jabber. Like all his films, his DEATH WISH will be a satire that is functionally no different than the genuine article, allowing it to outrage viewers from both sides of the aisle. I’m looking forward to it.

  39. I came here to tell everybody how awful the DEATH WISH trailer looks, but you guys have beaten me to it. In the end it says it’s based on the 1974 movie. And I can see how that would confuse a couple of, let’s face it, right wingers like Roth and Willis. Michael Winner is not someone you should copy in 2017. His take on Gardner’s book was wrong back then and it’s wrong now. But I think the worst thing is that the movie look so generic, and Bruce looks right out bored.

  40. Mr Majestyk, please help me see the satire in a well off middle class white man shooting poor black people.

  41. Majestyk – i’m assuming by “guys” you don’t mean those of us who aren’t outraged by his schtick, don’t think he’s a Trumper (and all that that that entails) and completely understand the level that he and his movies operate on but just think that they’re both kind of pathetic and sophomoric anyway.

  42. Wow Eli Roth actually sounds like my kind of guy. Ironically I’ve never sat down with any of his movies. Like I said though vigilante revenge movies have their appeal to me. It also seems like if they’re done by a horror guy they could at least be DEATH SENTENCE and that’s ok with me.

    Let’s also not forget that the original DEATH WISH had one of the most pro gun by a clearly right wing guy speeches in movie history. When Bronson meets the cowboy hat wearing fella. It never was the most politically saintliest movie around.

    It was a 70s movie by Michael Winner so at times it did boill down to shit like Bronson whacking a young black guy who didn’t even have a gun so some could view it as a twisted perverse old white man fantasy.

    Or…remember that he also kills unarmed white guys. It’s a vigilante movie that happens to star a middle aged white guy. Crime has no prejudice it’s an equal opportunity employer. Sometimes you just find yourself in the crosshairs no matter who you are when you step in the way of someone trying to kick it’s ass. Movies like this have been done with old black guys too. Denzel recently turned one into a new franchise.

  43. “Eli Roth sounds like my kind of guy except for the deluding himself into thinking he’s the only one with common sense part” is what I meant to say BTW.

  44. Wow, that is one tone deaf trailer!

  45. “Mr Majestyk, please help me see the satire in a well off middle class white man shooting poor black people.’

    1. Depiction is not endorsement. 12 YEARS A SLAVE was not pro-slavery because it showed slaves.

    2. That’s how satire works. You depict a clearly bad thing as a good thing and let the audience figure out that you mean the opposite of what they’re seeing. I have not watched the trailer but I would assume, knowing what I do about Roth’s M.O., that it depicts a pro-gun fever dream in order for the audience to see how absurd that particular fantasy is. The danger of satire is that many will mistake it for a genuine example of the thing it’s mocking, particularly if the satire is as clumsy as Roth’s generally is. People still think FALLING DOWN is pro-crazy honkey with a gun, despite explicitly stating that he is the bad guy.

  46. That said, Roth is also a provocateur by nature, so he often fucks up his satire by depicting shit he knows is wrong and offense just to get a rise out of people, so it’s hard to tell who or what his target it. He’s great at stirring the pot but terrible at explaining what it all means. He’s the worst interpreter of his own work. However, I’ve never seen anything in his movies that indicates that he thinks violence is a super awesome thing that heroes do. He might love extreme gore but he still depicts violence as an awful thing that is either the work of the truly monstrous and inhuman or as something that permanently changes and scars a decent person. Even the revenge stinger at the end of HOSTEL, arguably the most justified non-self-defense homicide in his oeuvre, is depicted with some ambivalence and treated as the protagonist turning to the dark side. Same with the end of HOSTEL II, in which the heroine’s use of the privilege afforded to her by her wealth is shown as her becoming the thing she fought against. And in GREEN INFERNO, his most scattershot satire, everyone’s death is treated as a tragedy, from the American idiots to the cannibals.The idea that Roth would depict Paul Kersey as anything but a peaceful man destroyed by his own bloodlust does not scan with anything I’ve seen from him before. Along the way, he might glorify the effects wizardry that creates the bloody mayhem in his films, but the violence will have a cost, as it always does.

  47. “That’s how satire works. You depict a clearly bad thing as a good thing and let the audience figure out that you mean the opposite of what they’re seeing. ”

    No, that’s being a lazy asshole, who uses “No no no, I was saying that to make fun of it and if you don’t get it, it’s your fault, becuase my sense of humor is flawless” as excuse to say and do horrible things (Aka the FAMILY GUY or President Trump defense.)

    Satire means depicting awful things in way, that make them look ridiculous, to unmask the stupidity behind them. Maybe the movie will deliver on that front, but the trailer (and Roth being everything else than a satirist) makes it look…problematic.

  48. The tactics of good satire and bad satire are the same. One is just effective in getting its point across and the other isn’t. How some creators choose to defend their bad satire is not my concern.

    I would argue that there’s never been a single trailer for a satirical film that did not make the film look like a sincere endorsement of the thing it’s satirizing. WOLF OF WALL STREET looks like a wacky comedy about a bunch of awesome rich bros who get all the ladies, because satire does not sell. White dudes shooting people does. So that’s what angle the trailer is going to take. It doesn’t mean that’s what the movie will be about.

  49. Okay, good point about FALLING DOWN. But if you had seen this trailer I think you would have been as concerned as the rest of us. It looks like a faithful remake of the old movie, but with som shootouts and nifty gun handling from Willis that indicates that this is more like DEATH WISH 4. There’s nothing at all that indicates distance or satire, nothing. If it turns out that it is a FALLING DOWN like piece of anti violence kick in the teeht to the right wingers, good. But the trailer, as it is now, doesn’t remotely indicate that we’re in for a treat like that.

  50. the moment in GREEN INFERNO where Daryl Sabara’s character is surrounded by Amazonian, weed-ingesting cannibals and exclaims, as he realises that they are about to tear him to pieces and eat him alive, that they have “the munchies” is where i checked out once and for all on trying to balance Roth’s possible satirical interests with his penchant for cringe-inducing unbearable puerility. and because of that i do not buy for a second that there is any consequence to the violence in his films except for when there needs to be to keep his bullshit plots flowing. the guy just has absolutely no fucking clue whatsoever at all.

    i will be fucking shocked if “DEATH WISH 2017 syndrome” becomes the new “WOLF OF WALL STREET syndrome” is what i’m trying to say.

  51. I’ve no doubt that you’re right about that. But I’ve seen five of Roth’s movies, and they’re all a little more thoughtful than they seem on the surface (even when the thoughts are largely idiotic, like in KNOCK KNOCK and quite a bit of GREEN INFERNO). I don’t always agree with what he’s trying to say but he’s always trying to say something, and it’s never been quite what the marketing people are selling it as.

  52. In the old movie Winner tried to soften the blow in the last 15 minutes by hanging some sort of cowboy fantasy around Bronson’s neck. But that couldn’t hide the fact that the movie was pure fascism.

  53. By all accounts, Winner was a sadist and an asshole who loved nothing more than exerting power over his employees and pissing off liberals. He was a classic troll. If his film offended you, that was exactly what he wanted to happen. I can’t defend his message at all, but, like the work of other auteur assholes like Michael Bay, it’s interesting to see such a reprehensible world view layed out so unapologetically.

  54. One thing worth noting: I’m mostly OK enjoying morally reprehensible movies if they’re good. But boy, does this trailer just look dull and generic. The only interesting thing about it is its obvious racial provocations, and it looks like they even chickened out about that (see? It’s OK that Bruce is blowing away black guys, he’s doing it to help a little black boy in the hospital! And the guys who killed his wife are all white!)

    It’s a boring enough idea to make a DEATH WISH remake in 2017, but if you’re not even going to push the envelope what the fuck are we even doing here? Our president is routinely more offensive and line-crossing than anything this movie would dare. Why bother? At least from the trailer, this looks like it’s barely satire and barely button-pushing bloodlust. And if either one is your aim in this cultural landscape, you’ve got to try a lot harder than this.

  55. As soon as the word satire was mentioned I had flashbacks to the ridiculous London Has Fallen is really satire argument you guys had.

  56. I thought you hated flashbacks, Sternshein. Or are you satirizing yourself?:)

    Sternshein
    August 3rd, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    How much of the movie is actually flashbacks told during an interrogation? This scene from Rick and Morty explains the best how much I hate the device of “starts at end but then flashback to the beginning” bullshit.

  57. Flashbacks in the middle of the story is ok as long as it’s not 80% of the movie.

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