Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake couldn’t have arrived at a worse time — or a better one, depending on your perspective. It’s practically an NRA promo. In this iteration of the classic urban vigilante story, Bruce Willis’s Paul Kersey is a Chicago emergency-room surgeon and resolute man of peace, still carrying the scars of an abusive father. As a consequence — karmic, if not direct — of his refusal to go through life meeting violence with violence, he can’t protect his wife and daughter from predators. (“I failed at the most important things a man does,” he says.) The Chicago cops are overwhelmed and ineffectual. God is nowhere in evidence. At his wife’s funeral service, her father says he grew up believing that humans have to trust in the Almighty’s plan, but how can his daughter’s murder be part of any plan?
Slowly, as if by natural — not social or cultural — force, Kersey evolves into a killing machine. Though loudmouths on TV and radio debate the goodness or evil of the unknown white man in a hoodie whom the media has dubbed “the Grim Reaper,” it’s not difficult to gauge the filmmakers’ feelings. Yes, vigilantism is a messy business. But victims of crime see Kersey as a “guardian angel.” The world is a more just, orderly, and safe place without the people he has killed.
It’s difficult to know where to start — which aspect of this Death Wish is the silliest? It hits a note of earnest dopiness from the start, when Dr. Kersey can’t save a mortally wounded cop and turns without hesitation (to the cop’s partner’s outrage and disgust) to saving the life of the criminal who shot him. After the attack on Kersey’s family, the police (represented by an unduly relaxed Dean Norris with Kimberly Elise as his peppery sidekick) are bound to point out that the vast majority of homicides in Chicago are against people of color, whereas a home invasion gone bad in well-off Evanston is an anomaly. But they don’t get to square one in solving the crime. Not a break, not a lead. It’s all on Dr. K to seek justice.
Willis has worked very hard to wipe the congenital smirk off his face, but he doesn’t have the energy to replace it with anything else. He’s a blank. Which doesn’t hurt the film too much, since he’s there for the audience to project on. Kersey goes to buy a gun from a curvy blonde named Bethany at a fancy weapons store, but turns away when he learns it might take a few days for a background check — and that there’s a surveillance camera on him! Luckily (or by divine grace), a gun falls out of the pocket of a guy on Kersey’s operating table. (No one had found the Seussian Glock in his pocket! Only Kersey sees and hears it and kicks it under the gurney.) Wandering the city with his new, untraceable piece, Kersey happens to come upon a carjacking and clumsily but definitively takes out the escaping criminals. He puts an extra bullet in one, which makes him technically a murderer — though no one in the audience I saw the film with seemed to mind. I sure didn’t. I whoop along with everyone else at vigilante movies, which is probably why I hate them so much. They are the definitive soul-splitters.
A few months ago, I was tipped that there was more going on in Brian Garfield’s original novel than in the 1974 adaptation directed by Michael Winner and starring Charles Bronson. The setup is the same, but the tone of the book is anguished, the action morally clouded — this is New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when it really seemed as if the government had lost control of the cities. Paul doesn’t play detective and go after the people who killed his wife and drove his daughter to madness. His revenge is general. Near the end, he sets out a car for someone to strip and kills the two kids who first circle the block and take the bait. In the final scene, some kids are raining concrete and rocks down on a subway car — the most nihilistic crime imaginable — and he kills most of them in ugly ways before almost literally running into a cop, who symbolically holds out his arm and then turns the other way, partly in worship, partly to say, “The job is yours.” The novel ends in irresolution and despair.
In the Bronson version, Paul doesn’t search out his wife and daughter’s attackers either. (It would have been easy — one of them is Jeff Goldblum!) But he is satisfied in his work and is allowed to get away clean. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, in the ludicrously sleazy Death Wish II, that Bronson turned into Dirty Harry and eliminated the people responsible for killing his maid and daughter. (Memorable racist bit: A baddie — Laurence Fishburne! — tries to shield himself with a huge “ghetto blaster,” in the language of the film, which is split down the middle, along with Fishburne’s face, by Bronson’s bullet.)
Needless to say, Chicago in 2018 is no place for a vigilante avenger, although in the hope of looking even vaguely relevant and aware of the fact that the black community is under siege, Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan have Kersey take out a black guy — the “Ice Cream Man” — threatening little kids who don’t follow orders. While Roth’s touch is notably less savage (and slacker) than in his Hostel movies and The Green Inferno, he is evidently happy to stage Willis’s kills in novel ways. The only vengeance killing with any kick, though, is a torture number in which Dr. K chains the bad guy under a jacked-up car, cuts his leg, and ties pours battery fluid on the wound. Very satisfying to hear the scumbag guy shriek, and the splattery punch line is a hoot. (I told you I whoop at these movies. It’s either that or leave.)
Death Wish is a classier version of what you can find on cable in the wee hours — it’s not worth seeing in the theater — but it’s worth pausing over its politics of guns. As I’ve said, Kersey can’t get one legally in time. But when things settle down, he goes back to Bethany and legally buys some real doozies, one of which produces the film’s orgasmic payoff. By then we’ve left the real world of Chicago — as if we were ever in it — and squarely inhabit that peculiar sadomasochistic fantasy land, in which man plus gun equals a restoration and maintenance of the natural order instead of the worst threat to it imaginable.