Two of the worst clichés are the guy complaining about how the world is going to hell and the other guy replying that some Roman dude 4,000 years ago said the same thing. The first is awful because it confuses things changing with things falling apart. There were plenty of people in the 1970s who doubted whether Mankind could survive. NEWSFLASH: We did. The second is awful because sometimes things do fall apart and the center cannot hold. If you doubt that just ask the Mayans or the Incas or the Weimar Republic.
One of the reasons why I do KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown is because in comparing original movies with their remakes, you can see changes in the film industry and the broader society as real things and not just theories. You can see where things have gotten better. For example, there are actually black people in films now. You can see where things have gotten worse. For example, the “Transformers” franchise.
This time we take a look at a weird zeitgeist classic about a world that no longer exists and its slickly polished reproduction about a world that doesn’t look like it can last. It’s “Death Wish” (1974) vs. “Death Wish” (2018) in a text book demonstration of how material improvement and intellectual deterioration can happen at the exact same time.
The original “Death Wish” is about an architectural engineer in New York City named Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson). A trio of punks, including a young Jeff Goldblum wearing an honest-to-goodness Jughead hat like from Archie comics, kill Kersey’s wife and rape his daughter, sending her into madness. So Kersey gets himself a gun and starts walking the streets of the Big Apple at night, killing any mugger he finds.
That sounds like an action flick, doesn’t it? Maybe a good one starring Steven Seagal in the 1990s or a bad one starring Steven Seagal any time after the 1990s, but an action flick nonetheless. Well, the first thing to know about “Death Wish” (1974) is that it is not an action flick. It’s a drama. Do you remember those? They were motion pictures grownups used to go to in mass numbers before Steven Spielberg and George Lucas helped turn every film into an amusement park ride. Far from a cheesy revenge tale where a hero strikes back against the forces of evil, “Death Wish” (1974) is about a man broken by fate and seduced by the power of vigilantism.
Watching this 1974 film now is almost more an exercise in archeology than entertainment. There are so many things about it that are no longer applicable to modern American life…and I don’t just mean the awful 70s hair styles.
1. “Death Wish” (1974) was made about halfway through a 30+ year explosion in American crime rates. People born after 1990 must be quite bewildered when they hear older people talk about issues of law and order. That’s because those younger folks have only known an America where crime has been on the decline while their elders are still remembering when law-breaking was getting worse every single year with no end in sight. For example, the number of robberies in New York City essentially quadrupled between 1965 and 1981 and remained at that elevated level until the mid-1990s. So while the level of street crime depicted in this film may be slightly exaggerated for dramatic effect, it does reflect a reality of urban life then that hipsters from Brooklyn to Portland can’t even imagine today.
2. The movie is also built upon an economic model that’s literally been reversed. Big cities used to have lots of poor people living in lots of squalor. The dream was to make enough money to get out of those rundown, crime-ridden neighborhoods. 21st century America metropolises have been so gentrified that poor and working class residents have been forced out. Now the dream is to make enough money that you can afford to live in the city.
3. While “Death Wish” (1974) would look dated to current eyes because of much lower quality production values and far more static camera movement, what’s more startling is how relatively unattractive the actors are and how their movements on screen aren’t perfectly choreographed to look a smooth and flawless as possible. Charles Bronson was 53 when he made this film and you’d think he was the father of the 63-year-old Bruce Willis you see in “Death Wish” (2018). And the scene where Paul Kersey revels in his first brush with vigilante justice and returns to his apartment to joyously swing his homemade blackjack around almost looks silly, like that nunchuck guy from the early days of YouTube, but it does look believably human. In contrast, every movement and gesture in the remake is so precisely framed and executed that it might as well be CGI instead of living, breathing people. Limitations in technology and technique used to mean that motion pictures had to somewhat mimic real life if they wanted to look good. Modern movies, even ones focused on the most mundane subject matter, project a Platonic ideal of what life might look like if everyone had attractive parents, could afford a personal trainer, and magically rehearsed everything they said or did a dozen times before they said or did it.
4. But what today’s viewers might find most unusual about “Death Wish” (1974) is that is makes a legitimate effort to tell a story. There’s an entire sequence in Arizona that’s about nothing more than showing the audience how Paul Kersey transforms from a bleeding heart liberal to someone capable of cold-blooded murder. Part of that transformation uses Kersey’s work on a housing development to contrast the cold and impersonal efficiency of the big city with a more empowered and humanistic relationship between a man and the world around him. And while all that’s going on, the film still feels the need to flesh out Paul Kersey as a character by showing him doing his job. The stuff that happens in this film aren’t merely excuses to get from one action scene to the next. It’s all trying to say something about life in 1970s America through one man’s tragic reaction to those circumstances.
“Death Wish” (2018) is a thoroughly modern motion picture in every respect. It possesses a visual brilliance we don’t appreciate because everything looks amazing now, yet there still isn’t a scene in the whole production that’s half as memorable as watching Bronson’s Kersey standing in the snow at his wife’s grave. It’s more violent than the original yet maintains a certain prissiness about it all. In 1974, we see Joanna Kersey (Hope Lange) absolutely get the crap kicked out of her and watch her daughter be sexually violated in the grossest manner. But while the 2018 version has no problem showing Willis’ Kersey graphically torture and kills one of the men who attacked his family, it never shows them being attacked. We only witness the aftermath of the violence.
Now, I don’t know if director Eli Roth thought he was being “woke” by not showing viewers yet another scene of females being abused and killed but since the whole damn movie is about Paul Kersey’s escalating desire for revenge, it’s a huge dramatic mistake to not show the source of that desire. Viewers need to emotionally connect with Kersey and seeing his family suffer is part of that. If you don’t want to show women being brutalized, don’t do a remake of “Death Wish” because it’s just a dry, intellectual exercise without those scenes.
One thing that is crystal clear from the remake is that Eli Roth thinks his audience is made up of absolute morons. There’s a recurring bit in “Death Wish” (2018) where we see and hear radio talk show hosts commenting on Paul Kersey’s vigilante killings and they might as well have subtitles that read “This is what the movie is about!” and “This is what you should think about it!” The filmmakers in 1974 were confident viewers could pick up on what the movie was trying to say and make up their own minds about it. Roth thinks he has to jackhammer the point into viewers’ skulls until there’s no room for anything else. “Death Wish” (1974) allows you to make up your own mind, which is why you can still have an argument over whether Bronson’s Kersey was trying to commit suicide by going after all those criminals or if he was instead retreating from reality like his raped daughter and taking refuge in a fantasy of frontier justice. There are no such unanswered questions in “Death Wish” (2018). There’s nothing to talk about because everything is tied up with a nice bow, except for maybe trying to determine the exact moment in filming when Bruce Willis stopped giving a damn.
Is “Death Wish” (2018) entertaining? Yes, in a very limited sense. It’s a middling action flick, not as good as Steven Seagal in “Above the Law” (1988) or “Under Seige” (1992) but a lot better than Seagal in everything he’s made since “Executive Decision” (1996). If you want a momentary diversion, you’re better off with the remake than with an original that might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphics for all the relevance it has today. I still give this Throwdown to “Death Wish” (1974), however, because there’s a lot of interesting things to it if you’re willing to put the work into deciphering it all.
Death Wish (1974)
Written by Wendell Mayes.
Directed by Michael Winner.
Starring Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia, Steven Keats, William Redfield, Stuart Margolin, Stephen Elliott, Kathleen Tolan, Fred J. Scollay, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Guest, Olympia Dukakis, Christopher Logan, and Gregory Rozakis.
Death Wish (2018)
Written by Joe Carnahan.
Directed by Eli Roth.
Starring Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue, Camila Morrone, Dean Norris, Beau Knapp, Kimberly Elise, Len Cariou, Jack Kesy, Kirby Bliss Blanton, and Luis Oliva.
Because it wouldn't be an Eli Roth movie if someone didn't get brutally tortured.
Seriously, it's a Jughead hat!
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