Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) is artless, cynical garbage, advancing a misanthropic view of American cities in which disenfranchised people roam the streets like savages, raping, looting, and killing as though it were all they knew how to do. This lays the groundwork for the action classic’s crude celebration of vigilante justice, which shows how one good guy with enough brute force can clean up the city. Playing the good guy, Charles Bronson projects little charisma, and his unfeeling performance works hand in glove with Winner’s clodhopper direction. Winner wants his viewer to cheer for Bronson as he hunts down and murders criminals, but given the lack of emotional investment behind and in front of the camera, one might as well be rooting for a machine. (Indeed many reviews of Death Wish and its four sequels describe Bronson’s character as a “killing machine.”)
This is to say that I had very low expectations for Eli Roth’s remake of Death Wish, starring Bruce Willis. Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) may be more imaginative than Winner, and Willis has a greater emotional range than Bronson, but neither manages to transform the ugly material into something palatable. The new film portrays the hero with greater emotional complexity, and the well-rounded supporting characters give the story greater heft. Yet Death Wish remains a straightforward celebration of gun violence and vigilante justice, encouraging viewers to cheer as the stoic hero takes the law into his own hands.
Willis plays an Evanston surgeon whose personal life revolves around his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and teenage daughter (Camila Morrone). One night while the surgeon is away from home, a trio of robbers break in, the wife is killed, and the daughter winds up in a coma. Two well-meaning police detectives (Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise) prove useless in tracking down the robbers, so Willis, arming himself to the teeth, starts playing detective so he can take revenge on the men who destroyed his family. Along the way he kills some other criminals in Chicago, which Roth renders as lawless as Winner’s New York City.
Roth adds one critical update to the original story, and of course it’s the Internet. In the remake, the hero’s exploits are recorded by a bystander and posted online; soon the mysterious avenger becomes known as the Grim Reaper, sparking debates on talk radio about the merits of vigilante justice. This development might suggest some ambivalence on the filmmakers’ part about the hero’s actions, but the street violence is staged with such disgusting levity that any attempt at thematic complexity seems purely for show. v