After seeing commercials for the upcoming Eli Roth remake, I rewatched the original Death Wish from 1974. I was really surprised by how different Death Wish was from what I remembered, and how Roth’s remake, to judge from the trailers, totally misses the point. Yes, Charles Bronson becomes a vigilante after his family is brutally attacked, but that’s just the skeleton of the story; the muscle and viscera derive from the specifics of crime-ridden 1970s New York, and the politics of the film’s vigilantism.
For starters, and the biggest surprise: Bronson doesn’t seek the specific hoods (one played by Jeff Goldblum) who assault his wife and daughter; once that really unpleasant scene is over, they’re never seen again. Instead, Bronson shoots any mugger who approaches him. He goes out of his way to be in dangerous places, flashing wads of cash in bad neighborhoods, until you realize that the “death wish” of the title doesn’t apply to criminals, but to Bronson himself. He’s courting death as a way out of his pain and helplessness.
Further, the cops, even once they know he’s behind all these deaths, don’t rush to stop him. Not only has the anonymous vigilante become a folk hero and media darling, but he’s actually brought the crime rate down. If they stop him, and it goes back up, the public will realize how useless the cops really are. New York City in the 70s was notoriously dangerous, with a reputation similar to the one Chicago has today. It was a time when confidence in authority, any authority, was crumbling, and the depiction of the police tapped directly into that.
So, if you can believe it, this is a fairly subtle film. Bronson, an actor who I’ve only recently begun to appreciate as more than just a granite face, is very good. In his early fifties, rocking the pencil-thin mustache and shaggy 70s hair, he never seems like a cliche “man of action; after his first kill, in fact, he runs home and throws up. Director Michael Winner, who made a lot of crappy movies interspersed with some gems (his first film with Bronson, Chato’s Land, is a pretty blatant Western metaphor for Vietnam, with a great supporting cast), carefully stays just this side of parody and black comedy, and takes his time establishing just who the Bronson character is before the carnage starts.
The trailers for Eli Roth’s remake look far less interesting, and considering the state of the world, jaw-droppingly tone deaf. Bruce Willis explicitly goes after his wife’s killers, quipping and killing to the strains of AC/DC. Considering the contemptible Roth’s previous films, and Willis’s innate insufferable smugness, it seems likely this is a mere standard revenge film, more in line with all the lesser Death Wish sequels.
The crime film peaked in the 70s, as evidenced by The French Connection, The Seven-Ups, Shaft, the first two Godfathers, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and so many others. Death Wish fits perfectly in this company, a dark examination of society’s failures and the morality of vigilantism. It’s not always a pleasant film, but it’s more than popular memory seems to make of it.
Avoid the sequels, though. They all suck. And consider Roth’s vile, nihilistic prior films (Hostel 1 & 2, Green Hell) when you decide whether to see his new Death Wish.