Death Wish: Too Real For Hollywood
I’m not much of a moviegoer, especially since the quality of most movies these days has gone significantly downhill. Most “original” films just repeat genre clichés or blatantly rip off better films. And most films out there today are either occasionally decent “true story” films, mediocre adaptations, unnecessary sequels, even more unnecessary remakes, or supremely unnecessary spin-offs.
The movie I saw was no exception. Even all three of the trailers were guilty as charged: “Mission Impossible 6,” “Jurassic Park 5,” and the second feature film adaptation of the video game Tomb Raider.
I saw “Death Wish” not because of Bruce Willis, as much as I love his work; “Die Hard” is one of my all-time favorite films, and he has shined in other action films like “Red” and “The Expendables 2” (AKA the only good “Expendables” movie). And let us not forget that time he wore a "Make America Great Again" hat on “The Tonight Show.”
I certainly did not see it because it’s a remake of a cult classic that I saw roughly a year ago on TV. Remakes are often my least favorite, as they are almost always awful and insult the original film, with a few very rare exceptions (John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” a remake of a film from the 50’s, is my favorite film of all time; Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” a remake of a Japanese film, is another one of my all-time favorites). But while I enjoyed the original “Death Wish,” I wasn’t such a fan of it that I wanted to see this film because of its title.
So why did I see the film? I saw it because I saw an unusual amount of left-wing hate against the film, for the stupidest of reasons. It was accused of “insensitive” timing, being released a little over two weeks after the Parkland shooting. Right, as if director Eli Roth knew that the shooting was going to happen, and he spent years making this film just to release it right after that shooting. And that’s on top of the fact that this movie doesn’t even evoke imagery of a mass shooting at any point, and certainly not involving innocent young victims like the real shooting did.
Then I saw the first few reviews for the film, and two of them stood out to me. The first comes from The Guardian, which rated it one out of five stars, and says that the film: “[flatlines] the politics and [saturates] the pathos.” The second is from The Hollywood Reporter, which criticizes the film for not using “genre metaphors to address real national debates.”
So, in other words, critics slammed this movie specifically because it DOESN’T preach to the audience, and it DOESN’T have a clear political agenda. I wasn’t aware that movies now have an obligation to be soapboxes for any given ideology or whims of the filmmakers; I was under the deranged assumption that they were meant for entertainment.
And of course, this film is yet another example of a very two-sided critical reception. As Rotten Tomatoes shows, whereas only 15% of snobby, arthouse critics liked the film, 86% of audiences enjoyed the movie; a perfect reversal from, say, “The Last Jedi,” where 90% of critics swooned over the film while it had a measly 48% approval rating from audiences.
An action movie featuring one of my favorite actors, a remake of a solid cult classic, apparently hated by the elitist, left-wing critic community for being apolitical, while loved by audiences? I was sold, and I went to go see it; I even wore my hoodie in what I guess can be called my first (and probably last) attempt ever at cosplaying as the film’s main character.
So now let’s get to the movie itself. Just what is this movie that the Left has called “alt-right fanfiction”?
Following close to the original — with some (necessary) changes — the film is about Paul Kersey, a man who becomes a vigilante against street criminals after his home is broken into, his wife killed, and his daughter beaten into a coma. Unlike the original Paul Kersey, played by the late Charles Bronson, Willis’s Kersey is a trauma surgeon instead of an architect, and this film is set in Chicago while the original was in New York City.
It is easy, then, to see similarities between this and another classic “vigilante justice” movie, “The Fugitive,” where Harrison Ford played a surgeon in Chicago accused of murdering his wife, and thus was determined to prove his innocence while on the run from the law. (That too was a sort of remake, an adaptation of a TV series from the 60’s). The changing of Kersey from an architect to a surgeon also works in the film’s favor, in terms of his hospital work playing a role in piecing together the various ways Kersey acquires more information and new “missions” to carry out. In the original film, Kersey simply wandered the streets at night looking for criminals to execute, and each one was a random, unrelated incident from the previous one.
On the flip side of Kersey’s dark mission, there is the ever-confounded law enforcement official trying to follow the vigilante’s trail. In this film the role is played by Dean Norris, who has built a career playing ineffective law enforcement officials, from a SWAT commander in “Terminator 2” to arguably his most famous role, DEA Agent Hank Schrader in the TV series “Breaking Bad.”
Even more so than the original film, Norris’s character directly and indirectly reveals the ongoing incompetence of law enforcement, in dealing with such a crime-ridden area of the country. In one whole scene, he goes from rejecting Kersey’s suggestion of hiring a private investigator, to revealing that even successfully-acquired DNA from one of his wife’s murderers is useless (since it didn’t match anyone in the police database), to admitting that the best hope of solving the case is catching one of the murderer’s friends on an unrelated charge, and hoping that they’ll rat out the culprits. He says the only thing Kersey can do is “have faith.”
The previously-timid Kersey finally learns otherwise when, driving back from his wife’s funeral, his father-in-law catches poachers on his farm’s property, and shoots at them to scare them away. The wise old man opines that waiting for the police is like catching a fox after it has left the henhouse, and that the only way a man can defend himself is by doing the deed on his own.
And so, while Kersey balks at buying a gun and going through the legal process (including paperwork and a firearms safety class), he gets an extraordinary stroke of luck; a patient brought in for emergency surgery turns out to be a gangbanger, whose gun drops to the floor from the gurney. Only Kersey notices it, and he manages to swipe it, using it to practice his marksmanship in an abandoned warehouse at night. In a major recurring element of the film, he then follows online tutorial videos to make up for not taking an official test; he learns how to disassemble and reassemble the gun (a Glock 17) and learns the most effective ways to destroy the memory box for a surveillance system, after he is caught on camera at a liquor store run by criminals.
And thus, begins the true “meat” of the film: Kersey begins stopping both random and carefully-selected criminal targets, starting off sloppy but becoming more calculated over time. He eliminates muggers, carjackers, robbers, and drug dealers; he saves a married couple, a young boy, and others; and all the while, he draws closer to finally catching the three men who killed his wife and turned his daughter into a vegetable. His crusade, courtesy of witness videos uploaded to the Internet, quickly goes viral (in another update to the setting and times of the new film), and he acquires a new nickname, admittedly a bit more foreboding than his nickname (“The Vigilante”) in the original film: “The Grim Reaper.” He becomes the talk of talk radio and shock jocks, debating on the legality and morality of his one-man war, all while the police remain just a few steps behind him.
The claims by The Guardian and The Hollywood Reporter are honestly quite idiotic. Let me start with the claim of “too much pathos.” Yes, the film is much more emotional than the original was. Whereas the original shifted rather quickly to Kersey becoming a vigilante, this one spends some time focusing on Kersey struggling to accept what has happened; he admits in therapy that he can’t even sleep in his old bed anymore since he once shared it with his wife, and instead of everything around his house reminding him of his family, he says he is only reminded of the thugs who ruined his family.
The film’s emotional and moral center is provided by a completely new character who is not found in the original; Frank Kersey, Paul’s younger brother. Although his actor, Vincent D’Onofrio, is well-known for playing villains (“Full Metal Jacket,” “Men in Black,” and the atrocious “Jurassic Park 4”), he plays the most likable and least-flawed character in this film. He is a counter to both the incompetent cop (who falsely accuses him of being the Grim Reaper) and his vigilante brother (trying to convince him that his new line of work is too dangerous, and that his daughter needs her normal father to raise her when she recovers).
So yes, the film does “saturate” the pathos, but just about as much as any other movie. I certainly wasn’t aware that it was possible to overdo emotion in a film where a man must endure the death of his wife and the beating of his daughter.
As far as the claim that the film is not political enough, or that it doesn’t provide enough social commentary; I once again call massive BS. The film touches on socio-political issues, with another recurring element being the interjection by radio talk show hosts as they vigorously debate the nature and justification of “The Grim Reaper.” Various crime statistics for the city of Chicago are mentioned several times, and both sides are represented; some hail him as a hero, while others call him a threat that risks inspiring copycat vigilante justice. One host even tries to call him racist for shooting a black drug dealer named “The Ice Cream Man,” who employs young children as his couriers; one of his co-hosts rebukes this claim of racism, pointing out that drug dealers are certainly no help to the black community, while at the same time reminding him that the Grim Reaper’s first incident involved saving a black couple from two white carjackers.
At the same time, the influence of the Internet plays a big role, although it is played up a bit more for comic relief. Aside from finding numerous convenient tutorial videos online, Kersey’s alter ego becomes a celebrity when a video of him stopping the carjacking goes viral; some clever memes are even made of screenshots from the video, including references to “Game of Thrones” and Grand Theft Auto.
And yes, the subject of the relative ease with which one can buy a gun is addressed. After seeing some corny ads for a gun store called “Jolly Roger’s,” Kersey pays a visit to the store early in the film; the unusually attractive employee, Bethany, assures him that the paperwork is relatively easy, and the firearms safety class is something that “no one ever fails.” Even some of the cheesier elements of the store’s wares, such as “tactical furniture” that contains secret compartments for guns, play a crucial role in the film’s climax. The topic is indeed addressed, but it is played up for laughs more than anything; it certainly doesn’t bash the viewer over the head with some pearl-clutching “lesson” about how guns being so easy to buy is a huge problem. If anything, it saves the film’s protagonist in the end.
Both the original and the remake of “Death Wish” are two very good and very different films, with the answer for their differences being the eras in which they were released. The original was released in 1974, just three years after another classic vigilante film, “Dirty Harry,” and one year after Dirty Harry’s first sequel, “Magnum Force.”
Crime rates were skyrocketing in the 70’s, and that — coupled with the fallout of the Watergate Scandal — led to a widespread dissatisfaction in government and law enforcement among the American people. As such, vigilantism became the ultimate dark fantasy of many who wished something — anything — could be done, even if they dare not speak it. The idea of the vigilante is a well-ingrained concept in pop culture. Most comic book heroes are vigilantes, from the more upbeat heroes like Superman and Spider-Man, to the darker ones like Batman.
A plot very similar to “Death Wish” plays out in a novel that I am currently reading: Without Remorse, which is (chronologically) the very first novel in the critically-acclaimed “Jack Ryan series” by the great American author Tom Clancy. The protagonist of this installment is one of Clancy’s other main characters besides the more famous Ryan: former Navy SEAL John Clark (real name John Terrence Kelly), who wages a one-man war on a local drug distribution and prostitution syndicate in Baltimore, Maryland, after several members of the ring kill his girlfriend.
At one point in the novel, Kelly reflects on the history of the word “vigilante.” It comes from the word vigiles, “a Roman term for those who kept the watch, the vigilia during the night in the city streets” (Clancy 277). In the earliest days of law enforcement, it was regular citizens who patrolled the streets to keep themselves, and each other, safe. Eventually, as we all know, that practice became almost strictly monopolized by government; thus, with a decline in effectiveness in such places as Chicago, it is understandable why average Americans would once again find that ancient craving for effective, swift justice once again. That is why Kersey is so relatable in both films; he is not a superhero or a cop. He is just another American citizen who has had enough.
Although the remake was released over 40 years later, some of those core issues remain the same. Violent crime is off the charts in some cities, and the population can only feel helplessness as the police are unable to deal with the violence. Together with talk radio hosts hyping up the fanaticism of the vigilante’s crusade, and the Internet causing news of his actions to spread like wildfire, he becomes an unconventional symbol of hope - but a symbol of hope nonetheless. And all the while, this Kersey remains significantly more grounded in his humanity, from the flashbacks to happier days with his family, to his brother’s pleas for him to return to saving lives as a doctor, rather than taking lives as a vigilante.
In the greatest bit of irony, perhaps the exact opposite is true when it comes to criticisms that the film’s release is “badly-timed.” If anything, the film’s release right after Parkland makes its message even more on-point: The similarities are striking between the incompetent law enforcement in the film, and the horrendously incompetent law enforcement that failed at every level - local, statewide, and federal - to stop the Parkland shooting before and while it occurred. In the aftermath, both sets of law enforcement turn their sights on the wrong targets: In the film, Norris’s bumbling detective tries to go after the vigilante himself, and even then he accuses the wrong guy; in the real world, the cowardly and much less charismatic Sheriff Scott Israel claims that guns are the issue, rather than his own cowardly deputies, the incompetent and indifferent FBI, or the deranged individual who actually carried out the shooting.
Of course, the answer should not be vigilante justice. But there is a fine line between defending your own home and going out to look for criminals to execute. The film’s climax personifies the former, and if anything, is a solid argument for owning guns - and not just handguns, but assault rifles and other accessories such as “tactical furniture.” At the same time, pressure should always be on law enforcement to do whatever they can; you can support the boys in blue while also criticizing the more bureaucratic figures who outrank them and are more often responsible for failures in the real world. This could not be truer than after the government’s objective failure to stop what happened in Parkland.
This is already a solid film in its own right. It has a strong cast (particularly the three male leads), it is intense even though you know what is going to happen (the entire opening, building up Kersey’s life at home, is bittersweet since you know what is going to happen), and the action scenes are very well-done and never too over-the-top.Kersey isn’t a John Wick who pulls off incredibly-choreographed stunts and displays brute strength, nor is he a Jason Bourne who never seems to get injured. Kersey slips up several times, gets injured now and then, and sometimes barely gets away. Quite simply, he is a realistic protagonist.
Aside from being so grounded, the film’s gentle commentary is even more real - it rings even more true after Parkland. It is made all the more enjoyable by not preaching in your ear with a megaphone, unlike other darling movies of Hollywood these days (I’m looking at you, Mr. Wakanda). It settles for being a good old action flick with just enough socio-political commentary to make it not as one-dimensional as other mindless, cookie cutter action movies.
There are some issues with the script that seem a bit illogical but are obviously for the purpose of progressing the plot. As just one example; there is a scene where a 49-year-old father of three attempts a copycat act of vigilante justice and tries to stop a mugging, only to be gunned down by the mugger. The television reports subsequently declare that this person was a copycat vigilante, and not the actual “Grim Reaper.” And... how exactly did they know that this 49-year-old father of three wasn’t the real Grim Reaper? Because the plot had to move along of course, with Dean Norris still convinced that the real vigilante was somewhere out there, in order to keep alive some tension between Kersey and law enforcement.
But overall, I’d say this film is just as good as the original, if not slightly better. They are very different, but they both work well for the time periods in which they were released. I give this film a solid 9/10. If you don’t want to go see it just to annoy leftists who despise this film, then go see it because it’s a good action movie, a great vigilante movie, and most importantly of all, a member of a very rare — even endangered — breed of film: It’s actually a good remake.