DEATH WISH – an insidious attempt to justify the vigilante

My expectations were low – verging towards the subterranean – heading into this remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson vigilante movie. This was especially the case given lead character Paul Kersey is this time played by Bruce Willis, an actor who’s used a gun to despatch more people in his previous movies than some of us have had hot dinners. So I didn’t expect any fundamental change from the message of the first film – that is, if the circumstances warrant it, it’s ok to take the law into your own hands and kill someone.

Normally Crave doesn’t include spoilers in its reviews, but given this is a remake, and given we’ve now got the President of the United States recommending that teachers be given guns to shoot mentally unwell gun-toting students, I’m going to break that rule. So let’s be clear, the message of Death Wish 1974 remains the message of Death Wish 2018.  Not only does the film say it’s ok to kill someone who’s committed an atrocity against your family, it also suggests it’s ok to kill someone who is behaving in such a way against a stranger. What’s more, it suggests this vigilanteism will make you feel better. And more than that, it suggests the police may approve of what you’ve done, and let you get away with it.

When you spell it out like that, Death Wish sounds like an utterly appalling statement against civilized behaviour. But it is actually worse than that, because of the way the film makers carefully and insidiously draw you in, in such a way that the film might, to some, seem a reasonable and balanced story.

The first 30 minutes or so are the key: we meet Chicago surgeon Paul Kersey (Willis) at work in the ER. Kersey was an architect in the 1974 film, so here we are in 2018 with the lead character a man whose job it is to save lives, and to do so under a strict ethical code. In the opening sequence Kersey attempts to save a police officer, gravely wounded in a shoot out. The officer dies, and then Kersey goes off to tend to the shooter, who’s also been brought in for treatment. A doctor has to do what a doctor has to do.

Shortly after we are introduced to Kersey’s family, his wife Joanna (Elisabeth Shue) and daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone). When Paul and Joanna go to support Jordan play soccer, they are confronted by another parent yelling abuse from the sideline. This father turns his anger upon Paul, who in the end walks away. So our hero/anti-hero is an intelligent, successful and reasonable man. Willis plays Kersey in a low key and likeable way. .

Then the atrocity occurs. While Paul is away from home, armed intruders raid his house, and Joanna and Jordan stumble across them, with awful results. One is dead and one is left in a coma. At first Paul relies on the police to do their job, but they make no progress. And when Paul later sees his father in law use a gun to scare off some rustlers on his farm property, the germ of the idea is born. Paul explores the methods of obtaining a gun legally, but the security cameras at a gun shop put him off the idea. He obtains a pistol illegally by chance, and the vigilante emerges from his cocoon.

So the film follows Paul’s quest to exact his own justice upon the men who attacked his family. And, along the way, he executes other criminals. The Chicago media pick up on the case, and we see various media arguing the pros and cons of taking the law into your own hands. Here, the film offers an attempt at balance. But that balance goes out the window by film’s end, when the police realise what Paul has done, and turn a blind eye to it.

And just to adorn the theme, AC/DC’s “Back in Black” makes a few appearances in the soundtrack. Apart from its driving rock adding a shot of testosterone to Paul’s crusade, its lyrics include the following:

Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack

Yes, I’m in a bang with a gang

They’ve got to catch me if they want me to hang

Cause I’m back on the track and I’m beating the flack

Nobody’s going to get me on another rap

Those words could have been specifically written with a vigilante movie in mind. So, yes, I’m giving a lot of the story of Death Wish away here. Maybe so much, that you’ll decide not to see the film. And that, dear readers, would be just fine.

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