Director: Eli Roth
Writer: Joe Carnahan
Composer: Ludwig Goransson
Starring: Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Norris, Elisabeth Shue, Camile Morrone, Kimberly Elise
In 1974 Charles Bronson and director Michael Winner introduced the world to Paul Kersey, an innocent architect who traumatically loses his wife and daughter to crime. This leads Kersey on a dark path into vigilantism and crime that gradually breaks down into a series of sequels which turn him into an urban Rambo blowing away crime with machine guns and rocket launchers. Now indie darling/schlock-meister Eli Roth is here to bring us a new chapter in the legacy of the infamous franchise with a remake of that original first film.
Violence/Scary Images: Multiple instances of people being brutally shot and stabbed. Several characters die excessively gore-laden deaths including having their heads crushed. Several scenes of medical procedures with incisions and blood are shown.
Language/Crude Humor: Severe language throughout including F***, A******, and B****.
Sexual Content: A young woman is tied to a chair and threatened with sexual assault by a criminal.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters drink alcohol and drug usage is referenced.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: Vigilantism, vengeance, and violence are prevalent
Positive Content: Strong themes about the human need for justice are prevalent.
I’ll never forget what was probably the single weirdest movie screening of my life in the summer of 2011. I was a youngster about to enter my junior year of high school while living in the suburbs of Chicago when I went to see Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I was a big fan of those movies when I was a wee lad with no sense of taste. Late in the movie, there’s a turn at the movie’s lowest point where the Decepticons invade downtown Chicago and utterly lay waste to the city. Buildings are destroyed, innocent people are vaporized, and the world is put at risk as the villains mercilessly turn one of the biggest cities in America into their own personal playground. It was, to put it simply, too close to home. Movies set in Chicago very much have this kind of weird whiplash for me when I see them.
Movies like Blues Brothers, The Dark Knight, and Man of Steel all give me a kind of uncanny valley effect where I can pretty much tell you where in the city they likely shot each of those scenes. At times it can be amusing like watching Batman take a shortcut from Lower Wacker Drive to Lasalle Street by driving through a walkway underneath Millennium Park. Other times it can be much more awkward like with the aforementioned Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
I bring this up now because the feeling hit me hard again while watching the newest iteration of the Death Wish franchise. Though not at all connected chronologically to the famous Charles Bronson vigilante franchise of the 70s and 80s, the movie very much continues the franchise’s themes of vengeance, violence, and vigilante justice. The big catch this time is that the film is topically set against the infamous violence of some of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. I attended college in downtown Chicago for two years and while the infamously high murder rate and gang violence the city is known for was something I rarely saw it did occasionally leak outside of the places it usually stayed in.
I recall one instance however when I was walking to an art museum in the east loop of the city when a street brawl broke out in front of me and I rather nervously continued on my way attempting to stay out of it. Following the news in downtown Chicago for a long time, you depressingly get used to hearing horrifying statistics about gang violence and murders happening constantly with dozens of people being killed every weekend. Despite being by and large quite a nice city, for the most part, Chicago has some of the bleakest places in the world at its margins. For director Eli Roth to set this next iteration of the Death Wish franchise in Chicago is a rather deliberate and potentially provocative choice.
To fully understand the Death Wish franchise we need to look back at the decade that spawned the franchise in the first place and understand what brought it about. In 1974 the United States was experiencing one of its most tumultuous decades in history. Radical social change, upheaval, and chaos were running rampant across the country. This meant good things like Civil Rights had the chance to take hold but it also meant that horrifying things like domestic terrorist grounds such as The Weather Underground getting a chance to roam around committing acts of violence. The Vietnam War was escalating, gas prices were rising, social standards and traditions were crashing down around everyone and people became very self-conscious about environmental issues like overpopulation, global warming, and pollution.
Famous serial killers like the Zodiac killer, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy were on the loose. The Watergate scandal in 1972 had proved to the American people that our institutions couldn’t be trusted. At the same time as all of this major American cities were becoming havens of crime. It became dangerous in places like New York City just to walk outside. In short, the foundations under everyone’s feet gave way and people were afraid.
Hollywood seemed to see a market inherent in all the bleakness and chaos of the time. In 1971 Hollywood released one of its most radical and successful flicks of the decade with Dirty Harry. The film was a violent revenge-driven action movie about a corrupt cop who has to buckle the system in order to stop a mass murdering serial killer in downtown San Francisco (an obvious parallel to the Zodiac Killer). The film was excessively popular and spawned four sequels but it was largely disregarded by the critical press. Most famously the movie, as well as its lead actor Clint Eastwood, was disparaged by film critic Pauline Kael who dedicated much of the next few years of her life to going after Eastwood. Her contention was that the film’s undercurrent of vigilante violence was an essentially fascistic form of art. I’ve always argued against this line of thought as I’ve felt it gets the causality wrong and doesn’t really address the reason why people want these films in the first place.
The Dirty Harry franchise are stories about cutting through bureaucracy and corruption to attain justice. They’re films that are reacting to a system breaking down, not stories demanding that they’re solutions be repeated by others. Furthermore, Kael’s critique hand waves the very real complaints of people having to live among the chaos of its time. The Deathwish franchise shares much of its storytelling and thematic tendencies with the Dirty Harry franchise. It shares a very bleak outlook on the world and was similarly maligned by major critics like Roger Ebert who, despite giving the film an overall positive review, classified it as potential propaganda for gun ownership and vigilantism.
This modern retelling of the Death Wish story in many ways feels like an overdue revisitation of the franchise’s central conceit, namely finding catharsis in a world that’s unstable. In the modern age of political bifurcation, a 24-hour news cycle with an “it bleeds, it leads” attitude, massive major world conflicts afoot, and chemicals in the water turning the frogs gay, I was surprised that it took this long to get old school revenge movies like Deathwish back in theaters (Side Note for Hollywood: I’m still holding out for a Dirty Harry sequel starring Scott Eastwood called Son of Harry). That’s not to say that there’s a significant lacking for cathartic entertainment in movie theaters with superhero and science fiction movies still taking the lead as the most popular regular blockbuster films each year. It just surprises me that movies haven’t really gone back to the well of the darker, bleaker form of action movies as things have become more tumultuous.
Since the film’s announcement of Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel, Green Inferno) being put in the director’s chair I knew that we were due for something rather out there among the realm of action films. Roth has a very pronounced reputation in the film industry for his mean streak and predilection for “torture porn” movies and that put with a film series known for its implicit violence and content seemed like a startling pairing. What I wasn’t expecting was just how surprisingly tame (relatively speaking) the film ended up being. It’s clear that either Roth or the studio reigned in his violent tendencies to some degree in favor of significant portions of the runtime being dedicated to attempts at character development. These scenes sadly don’t work very well.
The script is rather uneven and uncertain at times as to what it’s attempting to communicate in regards to the characters and their purposes within the story. Vincent D’Onofrio and Dean Norris really do their best with the material but it’s clear there isn’t a firm story for them to bring their performances in. Amusingly the opposite is true for the star Bruce Willis. The one-time star of action film masterpieces like Die Hard here walks through the material with a combination of disinterest and exhaustion. I do think he was ultimately a good pick and found plenty of overlaps between his and Charles Bronson’s performances and portrayal of the lead character Paul Kersey. Both are late in life actors largely walking through roles they’re relatively disinterested in for money. The main difference between them, however, is that Charles Bronson couldn’t really act all that well while Bruce Willis can and really isn’t trying to.
There is at least something admirable about the film’s attempt to rely on drama and character development considering how frequently the action genre is over saturated with nonstop explosions. That kind of attempt at character, drama, and small-scale action is more than a little welcome. The scenes between the protracted performances are often adjoined by the fact that Eli Roth likely was far more interested in the gut-churning violence. The actual content of the action scenes is rather scaled back for the most part. Aside from a scene of depicted torture at a mechanic shop, Roth never fully allows himself to go entirely into gruesome violence.
The majority of the runtime’s violent beats are dedicated to brief shootouts and scenes of Bruce Willis performing surgery during his day job as a doctor. As much fun as some of these moments end up being for the more sociopathic among us they don’t fully live up to what they really could. Maybe we’re spoiled right now considering the success of other similar movies and TV shows like Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, S Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, and the Marvel/Netflix Punisher show being as massive and functional as they are.
All the violence depicted did leave me with a rather somber concept to continue thinking on that I had been for quite a while. There’s a solid case that the kind of content in movies like this may be overstepping the bounds of some vital Christian principles and made me consider if I should be indulging upon them in the first place. In this sense, I’m not necessarily talking about the violence of the film as much as I’m talking about the film’s conception of vengeance. The entire Death Wish franchise, as well as the other recent successes of violent revenge movies mentioned before, rely very heavily upon our human sense of justice clashing up again the reality of the world’s unfairness. There have been a number of excellent movies that explore the personal and moral cost of vengeance like True Grit, Munich, and even John Wick: Chapter 2 to some degree.
Movies like Death Wish, however, come from a place of deep impatience and rage that’s understandable but maybe not terribly healthy. Even James Wan of The Conjuring and Furious 7 fame’s own homage to the franchise Death Sentence had more to say about the soul-killing cost of vengeance. Biblically speaking, vengeance belongs to God to mead out perfectly and our insistence upon revenge speaks ill of us even at the moments when we are suffering the most. There are multiple points in Death Wish when characters talk to Paul Kersey about having faith and at every point in which he’s asked to have faith in his institutions and the thought that there is a purpose to the horrors of life he turns around and rejects the notion in favor of taking justice into his own hands.
Yet in spite of this hesitation, I do still feel an attraction to these movies. I recall back to the stories of my experiences with Transformers and my later experiences just walking around Chicago and feeling the weight of the city’s conflicts. I’m also not the only person seeking catharsis. In a world so deeply struggling with its future and present it’s understandable that people would want to feel some sort of catharsis in their lives. In a sense, Death Wish and its fellow revenge films are a kind of modernist western. They start from very similar places morally and functional. Westerns are stories about lawmen with guns being sent into a lawless wilderness to bring order into the world.
In the case of the untamed wilderness of legend is merely a city on the brink of crisis. It harkens back to what Thomas Aquinas would refer to as the argument from desire. We see justice because we know it is there despite the chaos and lawlessness of the world we perceive. Even in a world ruled by a loving God we’re still fallen creatures. Death Wish craves the kind of cosmic justice we all seek from the horrors of life. In that sense, despite its nihilism and hopelessness, we are still left the smallest seed of faith.
Eli Roth’s Death Wish will not be remembered necessarily as the best in its series but for being yet another continuation of the franchise. It may only be loosely on par with its predecessors of bizarre sequels and offshoots but it earns a spot in the canon of this beloved franchise. It’s not great but it’s continuing the legacy of a flawed franchise and in that sense, it’s an honorable continuation. At its best, it speaks to something about us as humans that is flawed but moves us the direction towards justice even if it’s imperfect. We are after all a fallen species so maybe there’s something valuable about being reminded of those flaws.
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