Death Wish, which made Charles Bronson a major star in the 1970s, could be considered, along with Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971), the movie that firmly established the box office power of the take-the-law-into-your-own-hands genre. Its plot centered on a Manhattan architect, and his rage after a group of young hoods invaded his home while he was at work, killing his wife and severely beating his daughter. Viewers saw that rage build when the police, overworked and understaffed, admitted to him that, in a crowded and increasingly crime-ridden Big Apple, the men who ravaged his family would probably never be caught.
The grim-faced Bronson, an actor of limited range who was best known for playing tough guys in action films like The Dirty Dozen (1967), made an unlikely architect. Not that it mattered, for the 1974 film’s script (based loosely on Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel) was hardly demanding. Bronson spent most of Death Wish roaming Central Park and other locations considered dangerous after dark. He wasn’t necessarily looking for his wife’s killers, but would settle for any mugger who crossed his path. Looking to be menaced, he was, and then he blasted away with his pistol, killing thugs and becoming a tabloid hero to New Yorkers grown weary of crime.
It wasn’t a very good movie. But it solidified a powerful trend, showing the appeal to mainstream moviegoers of films that relied so much more on violence than on character or plot to drive dramatic interest. Like Dirty Harry, Death Wish owed much to the erosion and eventual demise, in the late 1960s, of the Motion Picture Production Code. Since then, American movies in various genres have paid scant attention to crafting interesting characters or plausible plots. It’s likely that the most recent crime drama or action film you watched also featured a scalping, an amputation, or at the very least an array of bodies riddled with bullets and writhing in the throes of death. Think only of such recent releases as John Wick (2014), Atomic Blonde (2017), or the new remake of Death Wish starring Bruce Willis as the quiet citizen-turned-urban-vigilante.
Created in 1930 by the first iteration of the Motion Picture Association of America, the fairly lengthy production code had governed the content of nearly all commercial movies distributed to audiences young and old. So it banned profanity, blasphemy, and nudity, among many other things, and told moviemakers not to emphasize or glorify violence or criminal behavior in any form. “Brutal killings,” stipulated the code, “are not to be presented in detail,” and “revenge in modern times shall not be justified.”
The 1968 ratings system, which replaced the code and remains operative today, dispensed with all the 1930s-era restraints. It simply differentiated between “G” (“General”) and “PG” (“Parental Guidance Suggested”) movies deemed suitable for children, on the one hand, and “R” (“Restricted”) and “X-rated” titles on the other, which only adults could be admitted to theaters to watch. This system was an attempt by the MPAA to provide filmmakers with more creative leeway, eliminating the sometimes petty obstacles that directors like Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock had often complained about and sometimes slyly circumvented.
Of course, having been in place over such a long period, the code was bound to be revised or replaced, particularly since films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) had gained wide publicity by openly defying its strictures. It was also inevitable that, with the code gone, movie producers and directors less talented than Wilder and Hitchcock would aim to cash in by packing their movies with violence and sex. Thus director Michael Winner was intent on making sure, in Death Wish, that the brutal attack on the architect’s wife and daughter was prolonged, detailed, and punctuated with nudity. The invaders, moreover, were portrayed as a high-spirited bunch finding fun in brutalizing others.
The sequel, which Winner made in 1982, exploited cinema’s new freedoms even more cynically. Bronson again played architect Paul Kersey. Kersey now lived peacefully in Los Angeles, where yet another group of wild-eyed youths invaded his home, gang raped his housekeeper, and abducted his still-recuperating daughter (who ended up leaping from a window and impaling herself on an iron fence). The sequel stepped up the violence and nudity to cartoonish levels—and Bronson would appear in three more iterations. They were like watching Elmer Fudd on the hunt, but without the humor and lots of blood.
It’s interesting to recall that, for many years, columnists, critics and mental health experts worried that such films were “desensitizing” viewers, coarsening the culture, and hurting the moral development of impressionable kids. Back in 1969, the veteran New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther may have started the conversation by complaining of the “bloody, nauseous” and “playful” violence in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and the “hideous amount of gruesome sadism in The Dirty Dozen,” which Robert Aldrich directed. The old-school Crowther, who had begun reviewing movies in the 1940s, the code’s heyday, also regretted the “fantastic, grotesque violence” of the James Bond films, whose great success in the 1960s had, he feared, convinced the studios that “this sort of stimulation was what the mass audience currently desired.”
In recent years, the subject of graphic and gratuitous film violence is considered passé even as all the slaughtering on screen has become routine. The film critic David Edelstein, in a widely noted 2006 essay, did call attention to the growing popularity of what he dubbed “torture porn,” a form of cinematic sadism in which characters are, for example, flayed or dismembered in relentless detail, and in a manner that invites viewers to share the killer’s point of view. Edelstein pointed to such 2005 multiplex hits as Wolf Creek, The Devil’s Rejects, and Hostel, in the last-mentioned of which the writer and director Eli Roth sent a couple of self-absorbed young American men on a backpacking tour of Eastern Europe, their goal to party nonstop in the former Soviet bloc.
In fact Roth’s Hostel provides a particularly good example of how much horror movies have changed since the days of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Roth’s clueless Americans find themselves in a desolate Slovakian town and in a hostel famous for its sybaritic pleasures. They are tricked, however, and end up shackled in the torture chambers of a psychotic club. In Hostel throats are slit and fingers and limbs are severed. At least one torturer whistles as he works, even as his victim screams in pain and pleads piteously for his life. The sadism in Hostel would have made Crowther’s hair stand on end. He wouldn’t have hesitated to call the movie obscene.
So it’s not surprising that the man who made Hostel also directs this latest version of Death Wish. Nor is it surprising that, like Winner before him, Roth ignores much of the material in the original novel, which is deft in its way, a notch or two above the common run of pulp fiction. Novelist Garfield aims for a fairly realistic portrait of New York in the 1970s, a glorious city fast on the skids. His protagonist is an accountant, not an architect, and is not the steady, stoic figure Bronson portrayed on screen. The man’s quest for vengeance poisons his soul. Unless stopped, Garfield’s novel implies, the vigilante will end up gunning down jaywalkers and double-parkers. His frenzy is presented not as something to cheer, but as an extreme symptom of social collapse.
This sixth Death Wish movie, though, simply follows its predecessors. Roth does move the action from New York to Chicago, which the opening sequence suggests is among the most dangerous places on earth, a virtual war zone where the sirens always blare and police helicopters fill the skies. The wild-eyed criminals, as unconvincing as the caricatured bad guys in the Bronson movies, are even invading the North Shore suburbs, where Kersey (Willis), whose profession has been changed yet again to emergency-room surgeon, lives with his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) and his college-bound daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone).
This time, when the masked men break into Kersey’s house, their victims fight back. The results, needless to say (and with a spoiler alert), are the same. After his wife’s funeral Kersey must visit his daughter in the hospital, where she remains for weeks in a catatonic state. Like Bronson in the first Death Wish, Willis checks in periodically with a sympathetic cop, in this case Detective Raines (Dean Norris), who points to his backlog of unsolved cases and shrugs. Alone and restless, wracked with guilt that he failed to protect his family, Kersey finds himself in a local gun store where a bubbly clerk tells him not to worry about the paperwork. Buying a firearm, she assures him, is a breeze.
Kersey, though, wants a weapon that can’t be traced to him. That he finds one is as implausible as everything else in this movie—but after teaching himself to handle a Glock he hits the streets. Not of Lake Forest, of course, but of all those shadowy parts of the city where the bad guys dwell. The straight-shooting surgeon, concealed beneath a hoodie, starts seeking out opportunities to dispense some rough justice, and to hell with the Hippocratic oath. Kersey takes out a carjacker or two, and blows away a dealer selling drugs from an ice cream cart. But he’s just warming up. When he gets a lead that could take him to his wife’s killers, the “Chicago Grim Reaper,” as he’s now known on social media and television newscasts, loads up on the ammo and refines his search, locating a dive bar selling stolen goods on the side, including items taken from his North Shore home.
In a nod, perhaps, to the fans of his Hostel films, Roth adds a torture scene in which Kersey traps and torments one of his targeted thugs, slicing into the guy’s leg while offering to extract its sciatic nerve. Later, Kersey turns his suburban home into a fortress, where like Rambo he ends up wielding a more powerful weapon and spraying lead. Near the end, when all the crooks have been gorily eliminated, the cops signal their appreciation. Now that he’s done playing judge, jury, and executioner, Kersey, Detective Raines notes with a smile, can go back to the job he’s really good at—saving lives.
The closing scene of this Death Wish mimics the end of the first one, when Bronson made a shooting gesture with his fingers that was meant to hint that a sequel was bound to come. The thought that Willis will replicate Bronson’s many trips to this well is dispiriting but unavoidable. This is still the sort of stimulation the mass audience desires, as Crowther said so long ago.