1974’s Death Wish was very much a product of its time. New York City was in the midst of a crime crisis that would inspire a variety of dystopian visions of a metropolis in decline, and the original Death Wish would inspire four sequels that would be released over the subsequent 20 years. The vigilante story that was adapted from Brian Garfield’s novel is inherently right wing, with its central belief that a man can violently seek retribution when the government fails to capture criminals. Over 40 years after Charles Bronson first brought Paul Kersey to the screen, Eli Roth directs an updated version of Death Wish with Bruce Willis in the starring role. The results are, well, incredibly tone deaf in the aftermath of the most recent mass shooting that has reignited the debate over guns in America. Death Wish is the worst possible movie at the worst possible time and is truly the first action movie that embodies Trump’s America.
This updated Death Wish moves the action from New York City to the streets of Chicago (more on that later) and changes Paul Kersey’s occupation from an architect to surgeon. Dr. Paul Kersey (Willis) is living the ideal suburban life in an affluent neighborhood with his wife Lucy (Elizabeth Shue) and daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone), who just got accepted to college. One day while having lunch with his wife, daughter, and brother Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio), the Mexican valet at the restaurant uses the car’s GPS settings to find Kersey’s home address, which will later that night be used in a violent robbery while Paul has been called into the hospital. The ensuing violent encounter leaves Lucy dead and Jordan in a coma. The investigation into the crime spearheaded by Detective Kevin Raines (Dean Norris) is slow moving and growing impatient, Kersey begins to find himself infatuated with firearms. He studies videos on YouTube, practices his shooting in a private shooting range, before donning a hoodie and taking to the streets. It’s not long before Kersey becomes a folk hero known as the Grim Reaper that is topic of constant chatter on talk radio, and eventually his vigilante quest takes him to the men who murdered his wife.
There are a number of changes made to this version of Death Wish that cause it to be a bit more problematic that it needed to be. First of all, the changing of Paul Kersey from an architect to a surgeon is a baffling choice, and one that doesn’t add any layers of intrigue to the character. Kersey the surgeon turns the Hippocratic Oath into the Hypocrites’ Oath, doing nothing but harm along the way. Secondly, the transposing of the setting from New York to Chicago ensures that Death Wish will appeal to its hardened right wing audience, the Windy City often serving as a deflection in the ongoing debate over guns. It’s an attempt to inject this revenge fantasy into a real world setting that only comes across as cheap and exploitative which only becomes more troubling as the violence becomes more and more cartoonish as the film progresses. Even the role of talk radio plays into the film’s right wing pandering as real life talk radio personalities wind up extoling the virtues of a murderous vigilante.
Don’t get me wrong. I love revenge tales on the screen. There’s a visceral thrill that can be found in bad guys getting the comeuppance. The problem that Death Wish faces is that it wants to inject itself into the modern world without making the slightest bit of effort to actually say something other than reinforce NRA talking points about armed vigilantism. There’s a throwaway line intended to be humorous about the nation’s lax gun laws which is another example of the film’s striking tone deafness. The audience is implored to cheer on Paul Kersey on his rampage of revenge without examining the moral dilemma of a man tasked with saving lives turning into a man taking lives. That inability to find any nuance in its tale of ghastly vengeance came across in the screening I attended. The audience cheered with ample bloodlust at each bad guy getting his head blown off or when a semi-automatic weapon filled someone full of lead. It was one of the more unsettling experiences I’ve ever encountered in a movie theater and it was made all the worse by one individual yelling “God bless the NRA” and “Arm the teachers” as the credits rolled.
Of the few positives of this ill-timed and ill-conceived remake, Bruce Willis for the most part delivers one of his strongest performances in a long time. However, Willis only shines when his Paul Kersey is a man stricken with grief and personal doubt. Willis’ performance wanes as his character adopts a violent swagger and a confidence that only comes from a Glock in his waistband. Best known as a horror director, Eli Roth does fill Death Wish some shocking and ghastly gore effects. While Death Wish struggles mightily with its tone, at least Roth has no qualms about showing the aftermath of violence for all of its ugliness. It’s frustrating that Roth isn’t able to use the repulsive aftermath of violence for anything other than a celebration of gore akin to the exploitation sensibilities of Herschel Gordon Lewis which feels incredibly out of touch and out of place.
Death Wish is a movie made for red state audiences that love their guns. The film had already been delayed once due to a mass shooting and with the frequency of their occurrences in America there’s no opportune time to unleash Eli Roth’s remake. This is a violent fantasy of vigilantism that is remarkably tone deaf for its time and will make anyone on the liberal side of the gun debate cringe with its glorification of vigilante violence. (To be clear, I know depiction isn’t necessarily endorsement, but that’s not the case here.) The original Death Wish reflected its era. The remake of Death Wish also reflects its era. Too bad it reflects the regressive and static nature of our national obsession with firearms. There was never going to be a good time for a brand new take on Death Wish. Some old stories are best left in the past.