Does anyone remember the controversy that blew up once the first trailer dropped for Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake? I do.
Recently I sat down to watch the original 1974 Charles Bronson-starring Death Wish, while also picking up the audiobook of Brian Garfield’s original novel. I also did a lot of thinking about the outrage of Bruce Willis in a hoodie gunning down Chicagoan criminals with Eli Roth’s exploitation fanboy sensibility orchestrating it all. Now, before I get into defending the entire idea of Death Wish, let’s get this out of the way: yes, it’s incredibly bad that Roth’s remake was released sometime after the Parkland shootings to the point where the critics heaped unfair criticism on it for that reason alone. Hollywood is a gigantic machine, a ginormous clunker, which has no time to rework every release it’s planning to match the current state of affairs. Oversight is inevitable, and you bet it’ll happen time and time again.
Alright, time to bring you all up to speed: Death Wish originated, as I said, as a 1972 novel by American author Brain Garfield. Two years later, English filmmaker Michael Winners adapted the book into a 1974 film starring that guy who people only seem to know because of this film, Charles Bronson. This film was despised vehemently by critics, who saw it as a showcase for the benefits of vigilantism, while the book was a dark examination of the reality of the subject. Both follow the same plot: liberal architect Paul Kersey (Paul Benjamin in the novel) begins pumping criminals full of lead after his wife and daughter are murdered and raped, respectively, with the latter being ultimately left catatonic in the end.
I can’t comment on the novel right now because I’m still working through it, but I watched the film last week, and despite watching it these days, I can certainly see why critics hated it and audiences loved it. The U.S.A., at the time, was suffering from a catastrophic influx of violent crime, and the idea of an everyman taking action when no one else would/could was what the people latched on to. Nothing else at the time (save for the revenge plots of some Blaxploitation films of the era) had the masses clinging to the image of Kersey popping hoodlums like bottles on a wooden fence. That’s why, I think, we can look beyond the exploitative nature of the original Death Wish film. From my own perspective, it’s a far better film than history would dare suggest. Bronson acts the absolute hell out of this role, making him a genuinely broken character whose desperation is made all the more understandable. The filmmaking, while cheap, does a job of highlighting the grit ‘n’ grime of New York City during the early 1970s; and while the murder/rape scene at the beginning is certainly less tasteless than A Clockwork Orange or Man Bites Dog, it’s still disturbingly effective and shows a very real scenario people were living in fear of at the time. And although the eventual sequels would dampen the reputation of the original film and novel, at least exploitation fans (like myself and Eli Roth) can enjoy them while still revering where the franchise began.
So, with all this praise and a built-in cult following, why did Roth’s remake fail? Well, it sucked, according to critics.
I like Roth, I’ll be honest, and I was excited for the remake because of my fondness for the franchise, but as the reviews rolled in and the months wore on, I just not never got around to seeing it. And while I might check it out down the road, I think it can be said that I won’t be going into the film with a lot of optimism. But as I reflect on the controversy and the reputation Death Wish has in popular culture, I think I’ve officially figured out why you just can’t remake this fucking thing.
It’s the fault of the times. Death Wish, inherently, was a product of the 70s, of that decade’s immense crime rates, of people’s genuine fear of hoodlums and junkies terrorizing them. Now, priorities of different: we’re worried about racism in the system, the presidency of Drumpf, police shootings, and who knows what else. A hardcore old-school vigilante story can’t sit well today because it’s so antithetical to what people want to latch on to, aside from people who are less sensitive to today’s issues than others. It belongs so much to that time in history, and while it is undoubtedly a classic revenge film- and certainly one of the best exploitation films of the revenge variant maybe ever made- it reflects sensibilities that no longer jive with the current climate. You would have to change a lot to make a remake work in today’s day and age.
As for the original novel? Maybe I’ll cover that later on. But if you decide to watch Death Wish, keep in mind the historical context, and maybe just don’t take it too seriously.