Death Wish stars Bruce Willis as Dr. Paul Kersey, an ER physician whos directly affected by Chicagos rampant crime when, on the night of his birthday, his wife Lucy (Elizabeth Shue) is murdered and his daughter Jordan (Camilla Morrone) is left in a coma by a trio of robbers. Frustrated by the polices inability to catch these animals, Kersey takes matters into his own handswhich, in this instance, means he starts hunting down and murdering lawbreakers with his trusty handgun.
Hes an alt-right wet dream: a modern-day gunslinger (played by one of the industrys most notable conservatives) who uses his sidearm to right wrongs and protect the innocenta fantasy that, in the wake of the October 2016 Las Vegas shooting (which prompted the film to delay its initial October release), as well as last months massacre in Parkland, Florida, is about as ill-timed as they come.
Directed by Hostels Eli Roth, here channeling his horror-movie impulses for grisly street-warfare mayhem, Death Wish is a remake of 1974s Charles Bronson hit, which itself was adapted from Brian Garfields novel, and which spawned four sequelseach one of them more ridiculous and distasteful than the last. It follows its predecessors template to a tee, stacking the narrative deck so that its villains are unquestionable monsters who deserve hell, and its police officers are incompetent and/or stymied by bureaucratic obstaclesa situation that thus imbues Kersey with a moral righteousness that justifies his vigilante behavior. Hes judge, jury and executionera Breitbart-esque Batmanbecause somebodys got to do it!
Such material is, at its core, fascisticand always was. Of the five prior Death Wishes, Michael Winners 1974 original remains the best, if only because it pays passing lip service to the moral struggle of its main character (although it still completely negates author Garfields pessimistic view of vigilantism). A New York City architect who served in Korea as a conscientious objector, Bronsons Kersey is transformed from an avowed liberal into an assassin when his wife is slain by creeps (including a young Jeff Goldblum!) and his daughter is beaten so badly that she winds up a veritable zombie.
The grieving Kersey initially, and understandably, wants revenge against those whove destroyed his life. Yet the rejuvenating thrill he gets from his first kill soon sends him on routine nighttime strolls through Central Park, looking for any would-be mugger to murder. Evading the cops (here, Vincent Gardenias Lt. Frank Ochoa), and hiding his homicidal conduct from his son-in-law and coworkers, Kersey is forwarded as the cartoon answer to the question of how to clean up crime-ridden 1970s New York.
The thing is, this good guy with a gun is also, you know, a serial killer.
Kerseys exploits only grew more devious and deranged in 1982s Death Wish II, which relocated him to Los Angeles, and had him dealing with punks (including a young Laurence Fishburne!) who killed his daughter and housekeeperall while lying about his past and present escapades to his new girlfriend (Bronsons real-life wife Jill Ireland). As would be the case in all the sequels, the fact that Kersey has again found himself in this situation is wholly absurd. And that absurdity, in turn, underlinesalong with Kerseys ever-more-robotic sadismthat the films are less about investigating vengefulness than about promoting a bloodthirsty vision of a virile man (with a giant phallic weapon) doing what an impotent system cantor wont.
Given its fixation on brutally macho do-gooder-ism, the Death Wish saga (produced, in its final three installments, by infamous The Cannon Group schlockmeister Menahem Golan) naturally pivots around the abuse and murder of women. Moreover, from the first films scenes of Kersey watching O.K. Corral-style performances in Arizona, to Death Wish 3s entire plotin which Kersey, avenging his war buddys death, becomes the outsider returning to protect an apartment-complex community from a menacing gang (including Bill & Teds Alex Winter!), and then rides off into the sunsetto the formulaic cowboy crap peddled by Death Wish IV: The Crackdown and Death Wish V: The Face of Death, the franchise casts its action as an urban Western. The problem being: Bronsons Kersey, employing a gigantic .475 Wildey Magnum and missile launcher in Death Wish 3 (all with the blessing of the NYPD!), and shoving Michael Parks baddie into a vat of acid in Death Wish V, is more holier-than-thou sadistic than any gunslinger ever played by John Wayne or Clint Eastwood.
Though the Death Wish films are brimming with unintentional comedy (see, for example, Ed Lauters Death Wish 3 police lieutenant Shriker constantly calling Bronson dude), theyre ultimately reactionary works that reflect the social anxieties of their given eras: muggers and rapists in the 1970s; gangs and drug-dealers in the 1980s; white-collar criminals in the 1990s. Roths new Death Wish follows in its forefathers footsteps, turning Willis Kersey into a gun-toting white guy solution to the Chicago gun crime problem. If that R-rated comic book setup isnt incendiary enough, the filmmaker then has Kersey stalk the streets in a hoodie, thereby appropriating one of the symbols of the Black Lives Matter movement (courtesy of the Trayvon Martin case). Pushing buttons doesnt get much crasseror more inapt, given the current cultural climate.
The sight of Willis Kersey shopping for firearms at a local sporting goods store (not Dicks!) provides the requisite gun porn, and his eventual use of a Glock stolen from a dying patient underscores the films topsy-turvy desire to have us root for a killer carrying out a personal vendetta with an illegally-obtained weapon. Theres some gnarly gore (per Roth tradition), and some police complicity in this rampage, and a lot of other tone-deaf nonsense.
I know, I know, the film isnt a policy statement or piece of legislation, its an ultra-violent action movie about a man wiping out inarguably scummy adversariesand admittedly, I often love those (John Wick: Chapter 2, for example), at least when they operate in a make-believe reality. Yet Death Wishs gleeful celebration of DIY justice takes place in our very specific here and now, and is predicated on the idea that the aggrieved are well within their rights to start firing away in cities like bloodthirsty superheroesa notion that doesnt ring true in the aftermath of endless mass shootings perpetrated by angry loners.
No amount of stylish glossiness can mask Death Wishs underlying rot. And in fact, Roth doesnt even try; on the contrary, he exploits his stars action-hero persona to further get audiences on Kerseys side.
In an early sequence, Roth uses split-screens to simultaneously depict Kersey tending to patients and training with his new gun, all set to AC/DCs Back in Black. Hey, hey, hey, hey, the message is clear: forget the soft-and-cuddly sissy who wouldnt knock out a bully in the films first few scenes, now the real Bruce Willis, he of Die Hard and Armageddon and The Fifth Element, is back! Even amidst so much unpleasantness, theres no scene fouler than this, because it exposes the ugly symbiotic relationship between Hollywood fantasy and violent real-world mindsets.
As in the Bronson series, the new Death Wish is devoid of nuance, feigning debate (via talk radio sound bites) while depicting everything in figurative, and often literal, black and white terms. In 2018 even more than in 1974, this paean to triumphant vigilantism is, ultimately, a sham, because Kerseys actions are essentially futile. Sure, theres a happy ending tacked onto Willis saga, but its tease of a potential sequel suggests that this 21st-century Kersey has the same destiny as Bronsons ancestor. The more bad guys he kills, the more he destroys his humanity, and the more hell keep on losing everyone he holds dear, until finally, Kerseya loving, compassionate family man whos remade himself into a compulsive killing machineis left with no one, and nothing, except his destructive gun.
Some hero. And some solution.
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