One thing the DEATH WISH remake has in common with the original: it feels kinda disreputable. I went to it knowing it had gotten poor reviews, that it had been delayed, that the trailers had been scoffed at by anybody I ever heard talk about it. People have looked down on Roth’s movies since HOSTEL, and they’ve given up on Bruce Willis ever giving a shit anymore, and they assume any remake is a cynical i.p. cash-grab, even if it’s DEATH WISH and it’s been in development for years and years and Stallone almost did it and Joe Carnahan almost did it and etc. Most of all, they don’t want to see a movie right now that seems like it might glorify a white guy shooting minorities, or support the moronic Trumpian worldview of “good guys with guns” who can save the day by executing the “animals” who they just know are scurrying all around in the “hellholes.”
I was not immune to most of these concerns. But also I came to it as someone who enjoys the Charles-Bronson-starring DEATH WISHes 1, II, 3, 4: THE CRACKDOWN and V: THE FACE OF DEATH all in different ways, and has read both Death Wish by Brian Garfield and its sequel Death Sentence, and championed the movie (sort of) adapted from that book, and also read Bronson’s Loose!, the great DEATH WISH series making-of book by Paul Talbot, and have an interest in many rip-off vigilante and revenge movies. And also I have opinions about all of Roth’s films and about violence and politics in genre movies and in real life and I love Bruce Willis and want to see him restored to full Bruce powers. So I went in complicated.
The good news: Bruce is invested and good in it. There are some ways that it’s more nuanced and true to life than Michael Winner’s original. There is some tension and there are parts that are enjoyable for those of us lowbrows entertained by cinematic violence. It also seems wary of being the horribly offensive movie you worry or assume it’s gonna be, and mostly steps around that.
The bad news is that it doesn’t have much new to say about any of this other than “now we have Youtube though,” and I can’t imagine Garfield will like it if he bothers to see it (I’m talking about the original author Garfield, not the asshole cat, although I suppose this applies to him too). He felt the 1974 version glorified vigilantism, which I’ve always felt was not giving enough credit to Paul Kersey’s descent into madness at the end, quoting a western stunt show he saw, showing he’s lost touch with reality, and ending the movie pointing a finger gun at the camera. Roth ends his on the same shot without the same menace. If the box office doesn’t warrant a part 2 I can go on believing that this Kersey is a nice guy who went through some shit and now will go back to being a normal dad.
The book’s Kersey was a CPA, Bronson’s was an architect, Bruce’s is a top ER surgeon in Chicago. He pulls bullets out of people for a living and then goes to his nice big house in the suburbs and wears sweaters and is literally a soccer dad. His daughter Jordan (model and rookie actress Camila Morrone) and wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue, HOLLOW MAN) are both vivacious and loving and excited about their (presumed) futures: Jordan just got accepted to NYU and Lucy is close to finishing her Phd. after fifteen years. (A cruel touch by credited screenwriter Carnahan, or whoever rewrote it after he left as director.)
That’s a good update, if you can call it that. I really like these characters and don’t want to see the inevitable bad things happen to them. Also in the mix is Kersey’s working class brother Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio, KILL THE IRISHMAN), a much more human replacement for the annoying son-in-law character. There’s more nuance to Dr. Kersey’s family relationships and paternalistic attitudes. It’s always been kind of a joke that Bronson is supposed to be a “bleeding heart liberal” whose values changed because of what happens to his family. Bruce is no Jack Lemmon (who was to star in a Sidney Lumet version that never happened), we’re waiting for him to go into action mode, but he’s more believable than Bronson as a sensitive, non-violent guy. They don’t have to come out and say it.They show it when he has the courage to tell off a guy yelling at the ref during the soccer game but is reasonable enough not to take the bait and turn it into a fight. And his sense of ethics is shown in a really effective opening where he’s consoling a cop about a dead colleague and then gets called away to try to save the life of the shooter, leaving the grieving officer behind in disbelief and disgust.
A major choice to be made: the original book and movie are not about avenging specific perpetrators of a violent family tragedy, but channeling anger into an un-endable war on random petty criminals. The remake begins with this sort of impersonal vigilantism but that leads to him tracking down his wife’s killers, basically combining DEATH WISH with DEATH WISH II or DEATH SENTENCE. On one hand that somewhat changes the meaning of Garfield’s original story, on the other hand it uses a generally more satisfying type of story that is part of the series as a whole. So I’m not against it.
Roth does bring his experience as a horror director to the film, especially in the home invasion that sets everything off. He wrings out plenty of suspense as they walk in front of dark windows, looking at a phone or a recipe book, oblivious to danger. And then by the drawn out sequence where Jordan is tied up and we know she knows a little Krav Maga and we don’t know if she’s gonna try something. His genre background also comes through in the scary masks the attackers wear, and especially later in a couple of great kills with quick bursts of spectacular gore.
Kersey doesn’t at first know how to be a violent guy, he bumbles into it a little and some of the deaths happen by accident (I am fond of a chain reaction that happens in a pawn shop type place). But pretty soon he’s got an elaborate torture scheme with sort of a one-liner climax, and does at least one classic Bruce action move:
If there was alot more emphasis on that, if it was outrageously entertaining throughout, and especially if it was less Sad Bruce and more Funny Bruce, maybe I could separate anything it might be saying (intentionally or otherwise) from reality. But it tries to play it pretty serious. There are no mohawks or rocket launchers. The 2018 version of creeps are twitchy white dudes with tattoos, not exactly a documentary, but they’re not memorably, colorfully vicious psychos like some of the ones Bronson faced. Roth seems to be going for some version of the real world, and that tells me to consider what it’s saying about the real world.
Roth is probly not a Republican or anything but his favorite thing to do is try to upset liberals and then cry political correctness and censorship when they respond. It still sticks in my craw that he couldn’t take the constructive criticism of a gay Fangoria letter writer when HOSTEL came out,* and that he talked up “SJWs” when promoting GREEN INFERNO. Surprisingly he doesn’t seem to want to be that guy this time, not totally. For a minute it seems like it’s gonna be some gun fetishist porn coming at the exact wrong time, but then he has a sort of jokey portrayal of gun stores that draw in customers with boobs, upsell ridiculous “tactical” products, have to do very little paperwork and promise that anyone can pass their gun safety course. I was more into the montage where Kersey learns to assemble, clean and fire a gun, but it’s split-screened with him at work removing bullets and sewing up the wounds they create. The circle of life.
There’s also a quick little bit, honestly like 30 seconds I’d estimate, acknowledging the dangers of other people who are not as awesome as Bruce Willis getting the idea to be Paul Kersey. And then we don’t think about that again.
Even as a guy who enjoys movies like 300 or PAYBACK or BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 or PUNISHER: WAR ZONE that immerse you completely in the single-minded perspective of their world or their anti-hero, I appreciate that Roth and/or Carnahan are too moral to make the asshole version of this tale. Their consciences won’t allow them to celebrate death wishing people without throwing in a couple caveats or asterisks or winks. The problem is it doesn’t feel like a consistent point of view. It’s just the serious pro-vigilante version with a couple things thrown in to say “look, we’re not gun nuts or anything.” It’s trying to have it both ways because that’s easier than navigating a specific path in between “he’s a folk hero, I wish I could do what he does!” and “this is wrong, and it’s a slippery slope,” the two attitudes you hear on call-in radio shows in virtually ever vigilante movie ever made, including this one.
That’s generally what passes for exploring the issue in these movies: the audience (and usually the vigilante) see a TV or radio broadcast with regular folks discussing his/her rampage, usually with a nickname (“The Grim Reaper” here). Other than a broad man-on-the-street interview, Roth handles the trope well. The discussion by Chicago radio guy “Mancow” sounds much more authentic than these things usually do, and the MVP is Sway of Sway in the Morning on Shade 45, who offers a resigned “I can’t believe people are on board with this” kind of dismay as some of his co-hosts and callers support The Grim Reaper. He’s also the only person to bring up race when he says he’s uncomfortable with a white guy in a hoodie shooting black people. Of course, Roth takes pains to make him closer to a white savior than a George Zimmerman by having him start by rescuing a black woman from white carjackers and by having the only black criminal he targets be on the behalf of black victims.
There also might be a little commentary in the moment when Kersey stink-eyes black and Hispanic possible-gangsters on the street as he thinks about getting revenge on his wife’s attackers, who eventually turn out to be mostly white dudes (though they’re tipped off by a Hispanic valet who overhears the family plans and gets their address – how’s that for upper class paranoia?).
But these are more like ways to get away with making a DEATH WISH movie in this day and age than they are an artistic way to do it. Roth doesn’t add much to the simplistic-four-decades-ago politics of Michael Winner. And it does bother me a little that the setting, Chicago, is Trump’s favorite punching bag. It may be in some ways subtler than the original DEATH WISH and its army of knock-offs, but it still offers an exaggerated idea of a city where you can’t walk ten feet without seeing a crime, and where the only thing you can do is own a gun and be man enough to fucking kill people all the time. Yeah, there’s a little more to it than that, but I’ve always felt like these type of movies, as much as I love them, were responsible for giving idiots like Trump – people who never set foot in actual cities, or live sheltered above them in golden towers – their horny fantasy of what “urban” areas are like. The concept is that the police aren’t doing enough, so believing this leads to giving them more weapons and more force, more leeway to kick down doors and step on throats and have no accountability when they accidentally or intentionally beat or maim or kill somebody, usually an unarmed black somebody. And meanwhile the citizens think they still need guns to protect themselves from these “animals” they are so sure are gonna kill their families or steal their property and they gotta have guns that can mow down an army in a matter of minutes because they just gave the cops tanks and you know the second amendment because of the tyranny and the, you know, the tree with the blood of patriots and what not.
Yeah, I guess I can see why people get mad when you think about these movies. They say you’re not supposed to. But I believe there’s already a better version of the type of movie Roth was going for, and it’s the aforementioned DEATH SENTENCE. That’s even directed by another horror director, James Wan, and credited as an adaptation of the book Garfield wrote out of disgust that people misunderstood the first one (though the movie has pretty much nothing to do with the book). Like Roth, Wan brings a style and sense of over-the-topness to a movie that takes very seriously the tragic murder of a son and a normal father’s loss of faith in the system and turn to violent retribution. However, Wan also shows in a powerful and non-preachy way the senselessness of revenge, the inevitable escalation, the sense that the good guy is literally indistinguishable from the bad guy at the end. It’s just an all around better movie.
Still, I probly like this DEATH WISH more than most of the people I’ve seen writing reviews. If you, like me, appreciate the tradition of the R-rated action movie, if you go see Liam Neeson movies and MECHANICs and JACK REACHERs and shit and you’re not gonna be bothered about the politics or the inevitable dangers of being held up to a Charles Bronson movie, you could do worse. It’s probly slightly above average in that company. I just don’t think it does enough to justify remaking this well-worn story.
A note about the score. It’s by Ludwig Goransson (THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN) and it’s not as good as his scores for CREED or BLACK PANTHER, but it’s pretty good. Still, I think in honor of Michael Winner, who had Herbie Hancock score the first one and Jimmy Page do II and 3, it would be cool if it was some respected jazz or rock guy. I’m not sure Kamasi Washington would’ve wanted to do it, though. I don’t know.
Oh – also what do you guys think about this for the end credits song:
P.S. Is there a way to make a sequel that’s more in the unhinged vein of DEATH WISH 3? Would that be too much? Once there’s a number after the title could I let go of my moral baggage? And could we have the daughter be a full-on Krav Maga expert for that one? I am open to finding out.
*I have referred to this Fangoria letter many times in Eli Roth discussions over the years, so I decided out of fairness I should track it down and see if it’s as bad as I remembered. It turns out the letter writer was a little less polite than I had thought, but Roth’s response was even more embarrassing than in my memory. This fuckin guy. It would’ve been so easy to politely defend his intentions, instead he insults the guy. His first sentence is out of the dumbass hall of fame, and then he tries to fit in so many bullshit, dishonest arguments that there’s just no time to come across as a sympathetic human. In retrospect I should’ve held this stupid shit against him more than I did.
But keep in mind that this was twelve years ago, and I don’t think he used gay slurs in any subsequent movies, so I can hope he’s not like this anymore.
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.