It's Really Not the Time for 'Death Wish'

The Eli Roth film promoting NRA-friendly truisms about good guys with guns is opening as outrage swirls following yet another real-life mass shooting.
Bruce Willis in 'Death Wish'
The Eli Roth film promoting NRA-friendly truisms about good guys with guns is opening as outrage swirls following yet another real-life mass shooting.

[This story contains spoilers for MGM's Death Wish.]

The very existence of Death Wish, director Eli Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan's remake of the icky but fascinating 1974 urban vigilante thriller, is puzzling. This type of exploitation film is very much out of step with its time, especially since it's being released three weeks after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that left 17 dead and 14 injured. You could also argue that Roth and Carnahan's update was made last year, and originally planned to be released this past November. Still, the film's release was staggered until now because of its proximity to the Las Vegas shooting that left 58 dead and 851 injured. So at some point, somebody who helped make this film realized: Maybe we don't need another Death Wish right now?  

Roth and Carnahan's film also doesn't exactly make a much stronger case for its existence. Like the original 1974 adaptation of Brian Garfield's source novel, this Death Wish is only a half-hearted character study about one man's inevitable progression from bleeding-heart lefty to pseudo-pragmatic killer. The circumstances that change Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis), now a doctor but formerly an architect, into a one-man proto-Punisher are slightly different. And there are a couple of scenes that suggest that Roth and Carnahan gave their antihero's moral panic a little more thought than the original film's creators. But viewers are still encouraged to cheer on Kersey for epitomizing the ugly NRA-friendly truism about good guys with guns — and now apparently teachers? — stopping bad guys with guns. 

Still, the challenges that the makers of the new Death Wish film faced aren't really new. After all, there have been four sequels since 1974, and countless ripoffs, including Exterminator (1980), The Brave One (also 2007), and The Boondock Saints (1999). Even former series star Charles Bronson wrestled with the Death Wish films' popularity. Bronson, who by most accounts was a gentle, kind co-worker, had a complex relationship with Kersey. This is partly because Death Wish 3 (1985) and Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) were released when his wife Jill Ireland was struggling with breast cancer, as she chronicled in Life Wish, her bittersweet memoir. 

For Bronson, Ireland's death prompted a brief two-year retirement, one that was spurred on by his previous on-the-record desire to "get away from the violence and into stories that are different from what you see on TV." This comment was made while Bronson promoted the sleazy 1989 revenge-thriller Kinjite: The Forbidden Subjects, just two years after he and Michael Winner, the director of the first three Death Wish movies, had a falling out. Bronson disliked what he saw as an "excessive" amount of violence in Death Wish 3 ("just too nutty with that level of depravity that we had as gang members"). Bronson went so far as to accuse Winner of filming extra scenes of gore when he left the set, and told The Los Angeles Daily News that he felt the movie was "too violent, needlessly violent." While promoting Death Wish 3, Bronson told the Chicago Tribune, "I am not a fan of myself." 

The actor would go on to make two more Death Wish sequels, but Death Wish 3 was Winner's last film in the franchise. Winner had no illusions about Bronson's vital importance in making these films, either: "If you've got Bronson, you can always raise money and you can hardly say that of any other star in the world. ... If you've got him, a decent script and a sensible budget, there's no way you can fail to make profit." This general remark about Bronson's box-office appeal is especially funny given Winner's attempts at calming Paramount producer Frank Yablans and producer Dino De Laurentiis' prerelease jitters: "I think we'll build on word of mouth." Sure enough, not-quite-impartial observer/Bronson biographer W.A. Harbinson reported that Winner's faith was vindicated when Death Wish was originally released in July 1974: "[Yablans and De Laurentiis] are pleasantly surprised when they visit the two NYC theaters showing the film [and] are treated by applause."

Still, as the saying goes — times, people and hairstyles change. And the new Death Wish movie fails on a number of levels, including its creators' inability to fully exploit Willis' star power. There are a handful of scenes where the actor's tough-guy smirk speaks for Kersey, who briefly comes across as an emotionally well-adjusted, sitcom-ready family man, such as when Kersey delivers a sardonic pout after he's challenged to a fistfight by a mouthy soccer dad during one of his teenage daughter's (Camila Morrone) games. But for the most part, Roth and Carnahan's Kersey could be played by anybody. Such as when Kersey whines to his hothead brother (Vincent D'Onofrio) that his killing spree is justified, "Damn it, it's just not fair!" This sequence is rushed, and says a lot about Roth and Carnahan's general disinterest in Kersey's emotional journey from life-saving surgeon to ego-stroking murderer. 

Then again, that discomfort with melodrama has always been a problem with the Death Wish films. Bronson insisted on rewrites for the third and fourth installments, probably because he recognized that on a basic level, that type of story was played out. That said, while Roth and Carnahan do sort of try to get inside Kersey's head, their version of the character's ethical quandary is expressed as an equivocal both-sides mentality. 

In the new Death Wish, Kersey's biggest struggle is getting comfortable with the idea of relieving his personal stress by killing generic bad guys. For example: Gun-nut culture is sometimes portrayed in an implicitly negative light. It's shown to be cartoonishly profit-driven, as we see in the internet ads that Kersey watches where flirty saleswoman Bethany (Kirby Bliss Blanton) entices viewers with a crop-top as price tags for assault weapons bulge out at readers. Bethany also gets the short end of the stick in the scene where Kersey asks her in person what kind of paperwork he has to fill out before he can buy a gun. She reassures him that the only obstacle in his way is a gun-safety class that everybody passes. She then winks at him and says that once he clears that negligible hurdle, he should be "cocked, locked and ready to rock." (The line is predictably used in Death Wish's trailer.)

Also in Death Wish's trailer: AC/DC's "Back in Black," a cock-rock standard that Roth uses during a slightly tongue-in-cheek montage of Kersey's pre-one-man-war training. The use of the song in the scene is intentionally ironic, but only slightly. It's shot in a split-screen, so we see Kersey saving lives at his day job at the same time we watch him get better at cleaning, aiming and shooting a gun he stole from a dead patient. The scene is and isn't exactly what it looks like. 

Mostly "is," though, since there are only fleeting moments where Roth and Carnahan do more than pay lip service to the idea that the people that Kersey loses his temper at are, generally speaking, not all bad. There's the scene where a (white) homeless busker tries to wipe Kersey's windows. Kersey angrily shoos him away, but then gives him some change a couple of scenes later. There's also the scene where a (black) civil servant misspells Kersey's name when he visits the Chicago police department. The clerk earnestly apologizes for his mistake, almost as if to confirm that Carnahan and Roth knew that they'd need to defend themselves against charges of racism. Bear in mind: This scene doesn't seem to exist for any other reason, since it doesn't push the plot forward in any way.

For further proof of my admittedly loaded assumption: See the conversation that Kersey has with an empathetic but impotent police officer (Dean Norris). It's a scene that RogerEbert.com's Matt Zoller Seitz singles out in his typically dead-on review: "Norris' character refers to gang-related murders as 'asshole-on-asshole violence,' i.e., violence that's typical and therefore isn't worth getting worked up over, right before he tells Paul that his wife's murder and his daughter's catatonia are 'special,' and therefore personally upsetting to him. You don't need to be a dog to hear that whistle."

Roth and Carnahan's latent racism is also apparent in the scene where Kersey blows away a black drug dealer who calls himself "The Ice Cream Man." The Ice Cream Man is depicted as a stereotypical thug, and is surrounded by intimidating African-American heavies. But none of these hangers-ons move a muscle to help their boss/friend/meal ticket when Kersey walks right up and shoots him point-blank multiple times. Instead, these hangers-on seize the day, and help themselves to The Ice Cream Man's cash box. Criminals may be a superstitious, cowardly lot, but in this Death Wish, only the black criminals are too scared to shoot back before they try to stuff their pockets.

Roth and Carnahan's active disinterest in journeying too far inside Kersey's head is especially telling. First, they simplistically complicate Kersey's pre-spree headspace. Then they completely stop trying to justify Kersey's ostensible inner conflict. Remember Bethany? The gun-lobby mentality she represents is ultimately vindicated during the film's final home-invasion shootout, since that scene proves two of her earlier assertions/enticements: 1) The cops don't show up until minutes after Kersey's daughter calls them, at which point it's too late; and 2) A concealed, spring-action assault rifle case is proven to have its uses. Death Wish has moments where it isn't as bad as you think it could be. But eventually, those moments pass, leaving audience members to wonder: Why exactly are they still making these movies?

  • Simon Abrams