I’ve had actual arguments with people about the validity of bringing up subtext in the discussion of movies (or any art), and in a post-Gamergate world it’s become a sort of line in the sand. “Resident Evil 5 isn’t racist, the black people are zombies, you have to shoot them!” “Whatever, Kingsman exploded Obama’s head because he’s the president at the time and it’s a global conspiracy! Why are you making this about politics?” Since I’m re-reading The Lord of the Rings right now, I’ve got little sympathy for anybody who has trouble acknowledging the nuances and problems with stuff they love, and to them, I’d like to heartily recommend the Death Wish films.
From the 2018 Bruce Willis vehicle to the five-installment Charles Bronson franchise of yesteryear, no (non-pornographic) film anthology has ever made less effort to bury the raging id at its core.
The Definitive Bronson
The conventional wisdom is that the 1970s in New York City were just a mess, and some statistics at least bear out why the perception would have been that way. There were just shy of 640 murders in the city in 1964, and there were more than 1,500 in 1974, the year Death Wish debuted. (Crime has plummeted in New York and nationwide since the ’90s, with the city reporting 335 murders in 2016, lower even than levels in the 1930s, when the city’s population was about a third smaller than it is today.)
Reasons for all this are complicated and dependent on factors as hard to measure as the stalling of the Civil Rights Act reforms and the de-industrialization of America or as controversial as the comparative lack of safe and legal abortion or an expansion of firearm ownership and gun culture. It’s sort of absurd to think I looked all that information up when the attitude of Death Wish is basically just that poor black people are awful and want to rob you instead of looking for paying jobs.
The premise is that in this damned-to-perdition New York, Paul Kersey, portrayed by Charles Bronson at his steeliest and most vicious, is the most bleeding-heart liberal whose heart ever bled. He was a conscientious objector in the Korean War. He’s a mild sheep in a city of wolves that, apparently, include a leering Jeff Goldblum in a menacing jughead hat. Jughead Goldblum and his nihilistic pals kill Kersey’s wife and rape his daughter into a coma while he’s off at work. We get to see every terrible detail of this, because killing and raping innocent women is bad but titties are great.
The police are useless. Kersey’s son in law is a helpless nincompoop. Bronson, an architect, leaves New York (the most progressive and permissive and racially diverse city and therefore THE MOST FALLEN AND HOPELESS) and goes on a business trip to Arizona, which we immediately see as a wide open and spirited part of the country where the corruption of city living hasn’t ground everybody down yet, and where, damn it, you can still breathe the opinion that the days of the heartless and immoral scum of the world should be made brief.
During this interlude, a floating cowboy hat that may or may not have had a character under it makes sure to tell Bronson that they don’t cotton much to bothersome things like gun safety laws and gives him an opportunity to see a reenactment of a Western gunfight between a sheriff and outlaws. This literal playacting at cowboy tough guy heroics is the unironic watershed moment the film gives us, the one where Kersey decides that being peaceful is for pussies.
The floating cowboy hat gives him a (curiously wimpy) .32 revolver as a gift and goes about avenging in New York, specifically provoking muggers like an uncredited Denzel Washington, just so he can murder them. At one point, passing incognito through a well-heeled New York City gala, some characters are discussing this vigilante. Somebody points out that he kills mostly black people (because he absolutely does) and another guest with a “Look, Muffy!” affect matter-of-factly responds that maybe we should have more white muggers so things can be equal.
So there you go, peaceniks, it’s not racist!
Kersey, amazingly, never does find the creeps who killed his wife, which sort of astounded me. He does manage to get the police on his side (including a very young Christopher Guest in a random bit part), and is eventually gently sent away from New York with a stern warning not to go around murdering anymore. They drop him off in Chicago, where he makes a finger-gun at some punks. Makes you feel safer.
Unpacking all of the ugly things in that first movie would take all day: Hatred toward criminals and punks but zero compassion toward the communities that give rise to them, the implicit attitude that city livin’ is sinful and for suckers, the assertion that (contrary to the stories of the survivors of sexual assault I personally know) being raped is just the absolutely end of a person’s life and breaks them irreparably for all eternity and every poorly dressed man on the street wants to do it to your daughter!!
It’s not hard, by the way, to find contemporary reviews that say these exact same things. Critics called this hateful nonsense like they saw it nine whole years before I was born. Yet, audiences seemed to love Charles Bronson, and in a lot of ways this is probably his most recognizable if not his most iconic role. And because the whole thing was totally not racist, it remains, to this day, a touchstone among the country’s most upstanding citizenry.
Dead Tertiary Female Character: The Series
No film series has fewer tricks up its sleeve than Death Wish and its sequels. The major change between the first and the subsequent installments didn’t come in the form of any rotation in the major players: Bronson and director Michael Winner both return (though the actress who played his daughter in the first movie doesn’t, because why should we care). Rather, it comes from the proceedings being under the banner of Cannon Films—a sure indicator that we’ve left any pretense of artistic depth and firmly entered the realm of gleeful bullets and boobs for their own sake.
In the second film, Kersey has moved to Los Angeles, where his daughter remains institutionalized, because, as we’ve established, there is no moving on from sexual assault ever. She is killed by more giggling goons, because there needs to be a reason for Kersey to go on a righteous killing spree again—which he does, taking the time to ignore the pleas of a person being mugged in one case because he can’t risk getting involved and possibly spoiling his vengeance killstreak.
The third is so outrageously silly that it almost (almost) can’t be read from the same disgusting worldview. Kersey returns to New York to find a friend of his murdered. After being wrongly arrested in connection with his friend’s death, Kersey is told by the police chief that he basically can just go around killing punks as long as he keeps it contained. Released in 1985, this is a sort of movie with gang members with names like The Giggler, who have absolutely zero threatening physical presence and who are dispatched in a number of hilarious ways: hail of WWII-era machine gun strafing, Home Alone-style traps by elderly couples, and of course, rocket launcher. The whole community joins in the slaughter and effusively cheers every bushwhacked goon. Some of the goons are even white!
The last two are barely remembered and did terrible numbers. Death Wish 4: The Crackdown saw Kersey murdering his way through a drug cartel, because, again, it was 1987 and obviously the way to stop recreational substances is prohibition with extreme prejudice. Death Wish 5: The Face of Death came out in 1994 as Cannon itself was going under and the franchise, fresh off another seven-year hiatus, had been shuffled to 21st Century Films. Kersey gets married just so his wife can get killed again, this time by a criminal boss ex-husband who also kidnaps the woman’s daughter. You can count Kersey’s kills without running out of fingers, all while wondering how a 72-year-old, even one as resolute as Bronson, can keep up even this sluggish pace.
It opened in a very limited release and did poorly, and a quarter century has come and gone since. So of course we were rid of it, right? Because bad things go away when they’ve proven no longer to have use or cachet in our society, right?
Same Country, Different Death Wish
It’s difficult to tell what Eli Roth thinks about anything other than how much he likes splattering humans in his movies, but it’s hilarious that his utterly tone-deaf movie, originally slated to debut last November, got delayed because it happened in the wake of the nation’s worst mass shooting. (That would be the Oct. 1, 2017, massacre of 58 at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, not the massacre of 26 at a Texas church on Nov. 5 that year—but don’t feel bad if you’ve lost track.) Instead, it opened two weeks after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that has since kicked off the present paradigm.
It’s nothing if not a faithful reboot. Bruce Willis is in the Bronson school of action hero acting, even if he can occasionally reveal depths in other features. It’s set in Chicago because that city is the current whipping boy among the shoot-’em-all-and-let-God-sort-’em-out crowd, our embarrassment of a president included. His retributive killing spree is held up as unambiguously good. The Kersey of the original 1974 film vomits after taking his first life, betraying at least some psychological damage. The Kersey of this one has cheerier sessions with his therapist.
If it seems like this is a hypocritical viewpoint to hold when I also love movies like, say John Wick, I want to clarify that it’s because those movies are clearly ridiculous works of fiction. They are cartoons rendered in live action, and the faceless mooks that get mowed down in them don’t resemble people any more than do the cacodemons of Doom.
Death Wish, on the other hand, is saying, “No, really, New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, what they really need, is some guy wandering around entrapping people into getting plugged.” The world outside your door—which, again, has a crime rate that has plummeted since I’ve been a grade-schooler—is a fearful place, full of people who want your women. Police are somehow to be both celebrated and yet not trusted to help. Rather than dealing with loss or grief, thinking about how to solve the structural problems that lead to violent crime, or building a world that is safer in ways that are more resilient and enduring, you should just grab a gun, man.
That this turd releases now isn’t surprising to me, and wouldn’t be even if every other news item weren’t about the boldness of literal fascists or what dismissive thing people are saying about Chicago on Twitter. Studies show that while our current national movement in favor of gun control is largely a youth-driven one, the attitudes about gun control among youth are more complicated than black and white.
There is a stubborn thought, lodged somewhere in the adrenal gland of adolescent Americans of all ages, that what the bad guys in real life need is an ounce of lead. I’m sure we’ll be getting more movies about that as we continue stumbling through this waking nightmare.
Kenneth Lowe knows how to play and how to shoot. Read more at his blog.