The time has long since passed when your friendly Doctor used to complain about the dearth of originality that resulted in so many films being remade. I’d say I was intemperate in my youth, but I’m not exactly temperate now; one just sometimes has to settle into a mode of acceptance. Having made that admission, it is also true that some remakes – like fine cigars – are better than others. You’ll never know unless you take the plunge, so on a recent blustery weekday afternoon I decided to plunge into Death Wish. The great Charles Bronson joined the dearly departed in 2003, more’s the pity. Let’s hope that Charlie is enjoying a smoke wherever it is that weathered, narrow-eyed titans in the sky go to have a smoke.
Bruce Willis tackles the iconic role of Paul Kersey this time around. In the original Death Wish, Bronson’s Kersey was an even-keeled architect with a lovely wife and a twentyish daughter who was already married. In the remake, Kersey is an even-keeled trauma surgeon in a downtown Chicago emergency room who lives in idyllic suburban bliss with his lovely wife Lucy (the still sumptuous Elisabeth Shue) and his model-pretty teenaged daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone.) When I informed Tuesday Night Cigar Club chairman Matthew Cade that Death Wish was next on The Doctor’s viewing list, he wisely pontificated on whether or not I would find Willis miscast in the role of Kersey. It was a legitimate point, and Cade was correct to mention it; filmgoers of our age grew up watching badassed Bruce Willis blast countless thugs away while simultaneously delivering classic one-liners and grinning sardonically. Would Willis prove to be the right choice for a character who is supposed to begin the film as a believable, non-violent pacifist? I was interested in this point myself, and, as it turns out… it pleases me to say that not only does Willis succeed, he does so wondrously. We cannot be certain how quick in real-time Kersey’s transformation occurs, thanks to a series of cuts and montages, but it is a credit to Willis – in my opinion, often not given his due as an actor – that his Paul Kersey is very much a reasonable representation of what we should expect this character to be. Willis has been physically fit for his entire Hollywood life, but he appears to have slightly trimmed down to make himself seem less of an ass-stomping menace as Kersey. Willis himself is now well into middle-age and no longer portraying guys who jump off of skyscrapers or ride a horse onto a football field in the middle of a professional game, and his charisma and abilities highlight the film. The pathos he creates reveals his maturation as an actor.
Anyone who has seen or even heard of Death Wish is familiar with the particulars of the plot, and if by some chance you are not, then the Doctor suggests crawling out from underneath your rock to benefit from the Vitamin D provided by brief exposure to sunlight. Dr. Paul Kersey sees the aftereffects of horrific violence in the ER and OR of Chicago North Hospital and accords himself professionally. When the day is done, however, he is able to return to his large home in suburban Evanston that he shares with his wife and daughter. Shue and Marrone both deliver winning performances as the angelic presences that Dr. Kersey lives for. Theirs is a happy existence that includes Kersey’s jovial brother Uncle Frank (the always enjoyable Vincent D’Onofrio.) Unfortunately for the Kerseys, a tattooed restaurant valet (tattoos = bad person in Death Wish) overhears them making dinner plans for 8pm on the following Wednesday, and he uses his smartphone to photograph the Kersey’s address from the onboard computer in their car. The Kerseys have been marked for a Home Invasion Robbery and the violent business is afoot.
Of course, Dr. Kersey receives a last-minute phone call prior to the dinner and is whisked away on urgent hospital business. When his wife and daughter return from a brief excursion into town, the home has been broken and entered. In actuality, nothing was broken; the criminal filth gained entrance to the house by merely opening a kitchen window and climbing in. Had not Kersey ever heard of the invention known as the alarm system? For God’s sake, he could have afforded a state-of-the-art home defense package on his surgeon’s salary, one with motion tracking devices and lethal booby traps. I myself employ an archaic system that relies on a foul-mouthed talking parrot, but at least I’ve got something. Alas, the Kerseys do not…
With his wife murdered and his daughter in a coma, Kersey at first turns to law enforcement for help. The city cops aren’t portrayed as helpless and bumbling in Death Wish, they are just overwhelmed by the sheer number of homicide cases on the docket that literally cover a giant bulletin board in the office of lead Detective Raines (Dean Norris.) Thus the foundation has been laid for a despondent and frustrated Kersey to begin his transformation.
Films like Death Wish, both in 1974 and today, are going to be considered controversial for many reasons. From the dangerous, crime ridden shitholes of the inner city and the racism it implies, to the accessibility of firearms and the idea of a violent vigilante as a hero of the people, there exists several intriguing plot points for broader discussion. However, The Doctor finds such heavy-handed horse poo to be as dull as a dishrag. I am only interested in how entertained I am by the movie. Lady Fortune smiles on Dr. Kersey, first in the form of a handgun that falls off of a shooting victim that he is attempting to treat in the ER. I’m not sure how the EMTs and the various nurses transporting the patient from the ambulance into the hospital didn’t realize he was strapped with a Glock, but now Kersey has his weapon. Disguising himself with a hoodie that he appropriates from a bin of discarded clothes at the hospital, Kersey descends into the urban netherworld of downtown Chicago and disrupts a felony by plugging a pair of would-be carjackers. The entire sordid affair is captured via smartphone video and soon “The Grim Reaper” is being studied not only by the police, but by a pair of real-life DJs admirably playing themselves, the popular Mancow and DJ Sway.
Dr. Kersey is hoping to find his wife’s murderers on his nighttime dalliances, whereas in the original film Bronson has simply decided to execute random hoodlums who have the misfortune of crossing his path. This is a subtle but discernible difference between the portrayals of Kersey. Willis as Kersey, while a broken man, seems to retain a semblance of conscientiousness and the possibility for redemption, whereas the original Death Wish offers ample evidence that Bronson’s Kersey is slowly and irretrievably going crazy. The narrative of the remake moves along at a swift clip, and it is helped along by an unfortunately unrealistic turn of events: while treating another gunshot victim in the ER, Dr. Kersey sees that the bloodied scumbag is wearing one of his stolen watches. Really? That is what Matthew Cade would call lazy filmmaking, and The Doctor would not disagree. However, the film itself remains tight in pacing and execution (no pun intended) so this device didn’t ruffle my gin-soaked feathers as much as it probably should have.
Some of the more interesting aspects of Death Wish are the different vignettes used to paint a picture of modern society, and applause is due to director Eli Roth. Roth is famous as a director of horror films that usually include visceral gore, and Death Wish has more than its fair share of gratuitous bloodletting, but Roth was clearly determined to give us a mirror image of the world we live in today. A middle-aged man like Paul Kersey, plunged into a horrible personal nightmare, suddenly avails himself of YouTube videos that show him how to disassemble (and reassemble) a Glock or where to precisely drill holes into a hard drive in order to render its data useless. Our society has become so desensitized to violence that my use of the phrase “desensitized to violence” is unbecoming and hackneyed. Shame on me. Images of The Grim Reaper perpetuating vigilante justice now become the subject of humorous internet memes. It is left to the viewer to decide whether this portrait of twenty-first century society is a flattering one or not. (The Doctor’s professional opinion: it is not.)
Will Kersey ultimately have his revenge? Will his daughter recover from her coma and make good on her college scholarship? I recommend checking out Death Wish, preferably with a friend that you can have an open-minded conversation with afterwards in your local pub or cigar lounge. There is definitely some silliness that I have hopefully been honest in alluding to, but the movie itself overall was an entertaining experience that legitimately leaves the viewer myriad subjects for thought. And as far as remakes are concerned, let’s hope that more Charles Bronson films get remade… and if they star an aging Bruce Willis, that is more than OK with me. As always, The Doctor wishes you all a clean bill of health.
* Editor’s Note: Cade here. I’m so inspired by this fantastic review from The Doctor that I’m immediately scheduling a previous Death Wish entry to be featured on an upcoming TNCC podcast as soon as is humanly possible. I won’t say which film but I’ll leave you this clue…