In 1974, the critics panned Death Wish, but the public loved it. In 2018, the critics likewise panned Death Wish, but this time their judgment prevailed. My nearest multiplex is two hours away in Burlington, Vermont: It has a pseudo-IMAX in Cinema 1, Cinemas 2-9 are for the superheroes and emojis and lego movies, and Cinema 10 is a small screening room you can rent for private parties and, when such bookings are lacking, it's where the art-house and Oscar-bait stuff winds up, plus Brit flicks that don't quite travel (like Sacha Baron Cohen's Brothers Grimsby). It wasn't a good sign that Death Wish was in Cinema 10 in its second week and that, aside from us, a party of three pimply teenagers were the only other patrons.
I find the failure of Death Wish oddly dispiriting, if largely self-inflicted. Indeed, a consolation of the remake is that it has given me a renewed appreciation of the skill of the original, including even the aspects of it I once disliked. The first Death Wish is a remarkable social artifact, a valuable record of the day before yesterday – 1974 – when New York and many other American cities seemed in large part ungovernable. By the time of the 2003 power outage in a tamed Giulianified metropolis, it was all over, and disappointed reporters waxed nostalgic as they tried to explain why this time there had been no reprise of the looting rampage that accompanied the 1977 blackout. Back then, much of New York seemed to be permanently trembling on the brink of social collapse, and literally switching off the lights was a mere formality.
What's all this got to do with Death Wish? More than you'd think. Then as now, almost all critics felt obliged to deplore the film – "a revenge fantasy deemed morally abhorrent by many," as The New York Times sniffed. As morally abhorrent revenge fantasies go, you're better off with The Count Of Monte Cristo. Yet, despite being the work of two men – Italy's Dino de Laurentiis (producer) and Britain's Michael Winner (director) – largely regarded as a joke by serious film types, it's actually a very thoughtful piece. Bronson plays Paul Kersey, a successful Manhattan architect, a mild-mannered conscientious objector from the Korean War, and a proponent of gun control. In other words, he's a "bleeding-heart liberal", as a colleague labels him during an early exchange that manages with remarkable economy to alight on all the problems of the day: rising crime, white flight, high taxes, useless police. Bronson's character is untouched by these troubles until muggers break into his apartment, rape his daughter and murder his wife. The cops tell him there's virtually no chance the perpetrators will ever be found: "In the city, that's just the way it is."
We all know what happens next: Paul Kersey decides that that's no longer gonna be the way it is.
Lots have things have changed in the 2018 version, written by Joe Carnahan and directed by Eli Roth. Instead of Manhattan, we're in Chicago, whose real-life weekend body counts are today's version of "just the way it is". Instead of an architect, Paul Kersey is a doctor at a local hospital who spends his nights patching up the conveyor belt of gunshot victims passing through his emergency room. There is, obviously, an intended irony about this new Kersey's career choice, but, just in case we miss it, Eli Roth, as is his directorial wont, spells it out: once the killing starts, he splits the screen showing us Kersey brandishing his scalpel by day, and by night brandishing his gun. One saves life, one takes it - geddit?
I'm all for symbolism, but this is moronic. In changing Paul Kersey from an accountant (in Brian Garfield's original novel) to architect, Michael Winner's film made the contrast that matters: between those who build - an office block, a city, a civilization - and those who can only destroy. More importantly, Bronson's Kersey is not part of "the system": He can afford his illusions, he's living life apart from the city's dysfunction - or so he thinks. The new Paul Kersey is a part of that system, desensitized to mayhem by his day job. When he drones the standard line to a dead cop's partner - "We did everything we could" - it's the equivalent of that copper in the original saying, "That's just the way it is." The '74 Paul Kersey was stunned to discover "the way it is"; the 2018 Kersey lives it every day.
Did I mention he's now Bruce Willis? Charles Bronson, with that great craggy face and weary eyes, was certainly a plausible tough guy. But he'd spent the decade before Death Wish in Europe, where he became a Number One box-office star, adored by the French as le sacre monstre and by the Italians as il bruto. The only English-language directors partial to him were Brits - not just Michael Winner but also 007's Terence Young. Willis, however, has spent the last three decades faux-shooting punks in one of the most lucrative American action franchises of all time: It's what he does. Bronson's Seventies mop and porn 'stache is startling, but, unlike Willis' shaven head, it doesn't advertise that hey, it's the Die Hard guy pretending to be a surgeon with a nice home in the suburbs. Casting doesn't have to be fatal, but Willis, who can be rather charming in non-shooting roles (Nobody's Fool), can barely conceal his boredom in the pre-mayhem part of the story. As the happily married Dr Kersey with a daughter headed to college, he sleepwalks through the domestic-bliss prelude. Called a "pussy" by some jerk in the park, he looks as blank as a Bruce Willis body-double who finds himself accidentally stuck in one of the dialogue scenes.
The one failure of the original, I always felt, came from the classiest name attached to the project – the jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, whose 1974 score is irritatingly obtrusive and mannered in what's otherwise a very real picture. Or so I thought. The remake has far more conventional action-movie musical accompaniment - by Ludwig Göransson, who's also the composer on what critics regard as the anti-Death Wish, the Wakandan paean Black Panther. Göransson's is just the usual scuzzy low-grade "score" that accompanies extras getting blown away. By contrast, the Herbie Hancock riffs are nobody's idea of music to kill guys to, but they suit Charles Bronson: They're what he might have had in his LP collection. So it's a bit like me turning into a killing machine to the accompaniment of "Marshmallow World". Which would be odd but apt. More subtly, it's a reminder that the protagonist of the film is not from the thug world: He is a civilized man attempting to protect that civilization - and so, for all its sore-thumbiness, the Hancock score underlines the point that jazz, nightlife, art, sophistication, urbanity, all are imperiled when the goons rule the streets. In the Bruce Willis version, the music sounds merely like the usual thumping bass Bruce blows away muthaf**kers to. (I understand that Mr Göransson first came to Hollywood's attention after producing such Childish Gambino tracks as "F**k It All".)
That said, let me credit Carnahan and Roth with a small but significant improvement on the original. In '74, Bronson butches up when work takes him away from the urban wasteland to Arizona. "This is gun country," says a realtor, explaining that most of the guys round here pack heat and that's why you can walk the streets safely. "Muggers jes' plain get their asses blown out." Bronson returns to the city a changed man.
In the new version, the body of Bruce Willis' murdered wife (Elisabeth Shue) is returned to her home town in rural Texas. On their way back from the funeral, Willis' father-in-law (a worn, weathered Len Cariou) suddenly jerks his pick-up off the road, picks up his shotgun, and opens fire on some fleeing poachers. "If a man wants to protect what's his," he says, "he has to do it for himself." Delivered by the father of the woman Willis' character failed to protect, it is a line designed to cut deep, and it does: Bronson was the victim of a cruel fate; Willis is being informed that's he failed as a man.
Michael Winner told his story briskly but with an eye for the telling detail – the supermarket guards intimidated by the gangs, the subway police turning a blind eye to the punks terrorizing their passengers, the busted payphones so routinely out of order that even a cop can't find one that works. It's a perfect time capsule of a failed age. In 2018 Chicago, things work - phones, computers, GPS - but the people are taking on the character of those busted payphones. The Police Commissioner in the first movie and the critics who reviewed it both called Bronson a "vigilante". But, in fact, Winner was scrupulous about showing Bronson only shooting those who first threaten him. To be sure, he sort of goes looking for trouble. But in 1970s New York you didn't have to look far: just go to the park, ride the subway, take an evening stroll. Willis, on the other hand, cuts straight to Death Wish II, climbing into a hoodie and going out at night to hunt down and whack random low-lifes who've caught his attention. Like many critics, by the way, I'm not happy about the hoodie - not because it's "cultural appropriation", but because it suggests a man can only man up and fight back by becoming one of them. I prefer the way Charles Bronson deals with, say, a subway mugger (see above) while still wearing his sports coat.
In the original novel, the Kersey family is attacked by a black gang. The '74 film, in an excess of caution, had the Kersey women preyed on by young Jeff Goldblum, looking like a goofy Jewish Jughead, plus (if memory serves) an Irish- and a Greek-American. The remake restores something closer to statistical probability: It's the valet parker at the restaurant who slyly photographs the Kerseys' home address from the dashboard info console - and his name, we learn, is Miguel. Thereafter, there is no shortage of Hispanics and blacks among Bruce Willis' corpse count - even if, in a touching tribute to the heartwarming vibrancy of diversity, in today's Chicago apparently blacks, whites and Latinos all enjoy being together in the same gang. Still, as real-life talk-radio jock Sway Calloway complains in the picture, "You got a white guy in a hoodie killing black people - you don't have a problem with that?" Eli Roth returns again and again to Sway and our old friend Mancow in their radio studios debating the merits of vigilante justice - to the point where it's rather too obvious he's using them as pre-emptive cover. But it does remind you that in today's America "a white guy in a hoodie killing black people", however criminal they might be, would be George Zimmermaned by the media pretty instantly.
So why did the film flop? Is it just ruthless demographic arithmetic? All the white guys who cheered Charles Bronson are now forty years older and less inclined to venture out to the local fleapit? Or is it that the bigger budget and bigger star somehow made the actual story smaller and less primal? As the film goes on, Willis' methods of dispatch, including a bowling ball and brake fluid, get ever cuter, as if to absolve the carnage from anything to do with reality.
It's a great shame, especially if it emboldens lefty cultural critics to think they've won some sort of grand victory over a film they dismiss as NRA propaganda. But it has to be said that Bruce & Co largely brought it on themselves: I regard Willis as more or less a good thing, but I would advise him to eschew remakes - because, as with Day of the Jackal, he keeps making them worse. I left that shrunken cinema in Vermont with a renewed appreciation for Charles Bronson's leathery visage and squinty eyes. You didn't need to know the specifics – World War Two tailgunner, one of 15 kids of a Lithuanian coal-miner. You could see it in the crevices and grooves: Bronson was one of the last movie stars to project a sense of experience beyond cinema. Who does so now? Pretty boys like Tom Cruise? CGI action figures like Chris Hemsworth? Yet it's Bronson who makes you see the whole point of movies: it's a face made for close-up. I don't know what he was like as a fledgling stage actor in Philadelphia in 1947, but I can't believe it had the power of the big screen. He's a classic movie tough guy – an economic actor, taciturn and stoic; he exudes male strength rather than displaying it.
Bronson's first outing as Paul Kersey represents a rare moment when a motion picture tapped into a genuine populist anger, as opposed to mere cocktail-party causes. It was famously said at the time that a neo-conservative was a liberal who'd been mugged. That's what de Laurentiis, Winner and Bronson gave us in Death Wish: a liberal mugged by reality, in one of the defining documents of a wretched decade. You know the remake's gone badly wrong when you're pining for the taste and sensitivity and artistic integrity of Michael Winner.
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