For twenty years, from 1974 to 1994, Charles Bronson starred in “Death Wish” films as Paul Kersey, a successful New York architect turned vigilante after his wife was murdered and child assaulted. “If the police don’t defend us,” he growled, “maybe we ought to do it ourselves.”
In “Death Wish,” the new Eli Roth-directed reboot of the series, Bruce Willis steps in, beating out—but not beating up— Sylvester Stallone who was originally cast as Kersey.
This time around the backdrop is Chicago. Dr. Kersey (Willis) is a surgeon whose work in the ER gives him an up-close-and-personal look at the effects of violence in his city. He gets an even closer look at the carnage when home intruders viciously attack his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and young daughter (Camila Morrone). The healer turns killer, exchanging the scalpel for a gun, which he learns to fire by watching a YouTube show called Full Metal Tactics. “I love my family and when they needed me most I failed to protect them.” As bad guy bodies (and snappy one-liners) pile up he becomes headline news—the newspapers billboard “Grim Reaper Alerts”—but is he right to take the law into his own hands? Is he a folk hero or domestic terrorist?
With gun control front and center in public debate right now “Death Wish” could have been a timely and relevant film. It could ask questions. When does a good guy with a gun, shooting bad guys with guns, become a bad guy with a gun? It could have been a poignant film about a man pushed too far but there is nothing poignant about Roth’s reboot of the seventies series. It’s not a character study of grief or a portrait of Chicago’s escalating crime rate. Satisfied to take the low road, it’s a revenge film pure and simple. Audiences are meant to applaud every time Kersey blows away a bad guy and not think too deeply about the normalization of dangerous behaviour.
Willis, whose resume is dotted with charming hero types, plays Kersey as a wounded man who finds strength in his revenge. He’s locked, loaded and ready to rock. His most famous character, off-duty New York City Police Department officer John McClane, was always keen to dispatch a villain but he didn’t go hunting random victims or torture them once he found them. We are supposed to get the great contradiction of Kersey’s life—he’s a healer in the O.R. but a killer on the street—but the movie gives equal weight to the yin and yang. He’s a good guy because he cures people and a patriot because he rids the streets of undesirables. To be truly effective he must be one or the other. The muddy antihero middle is an ugly, exaggerated male violence fantasy. Is Kersey a folk hero or a killer? The movie can’t seem to decide.
“Death Wish” will provide ammunition for discussion, so that’s something. Gun violence has been a hot button topic when the first movie came out in 1974. It still is, but the conversation has changed.