When the movie was released, Vincent Canby, then the principal film critic of the New York Times, wrote this: "It's a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers."
Roger Ebert awarded the movie three stars, crediting it for creating "eerie fascination" but also pointing out that Death Wish was "propaganda for private gun ownership and a call to vigilante justice."*
Now comes director Eli Roth's remake starring Bruce Willis. Roth moves the story from New York to Chicago and converts the movie's vigilante from an architect to a surgeon. He also loses anything you might call "eerie fascination" or any other qualities that might be called redeeming.
For those who are unfamiliar with this hoary revenge-fest, it goes like this. A physician and his wife (Elizabeth Shue) are living a happy life in Evanston, Ill. when their home is burglarized by three thugs, a crime that results in the death of the doctor's wife. The family's teenage daughter (Camila Morrone) is also wounded. She winds up in a coma.
Willis' Paul Kersey and his brother (Vincent D'Onofrio) are, of course, inconsolable. Kersey was at work at the time of the burglary, and, therefore, believes he failed in his manly duties to protect home, hearth, and -- of course -- the women in his life.
A couple of Chicago detectives (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) are sure they'll catch the killers, but the wheels of justice don't seem to be turning fast enough for Kersey, who -- in this mildly updated 21st century edition -- even visits a therapist.
Frustrated and grief-stricken, Kersey decides to pick up a gun. His actions earn him a nickname: He's the Chicago Grim Reaper, a man who kills only those who deserve punishment. Among the Reaper's victims, an inner-city drug dealer who goes by the name of Ice Cream Man.
Instead of creating sickening urban exploitation, Roth treats audiences to an equally dubious helping of what might be deemed "gun fun," sometimes adding comic spin to the movie's abundant violence. Presumably, we're meant to find visceral satisfaction in Kersey's forays into the night as he dons a hoodie and takes justice into his own hands. Of course, he also hopes to find his wife's killers.
Roth, who has directed horror movies such as Cabin Fever and Hostel, needs no introduction to gore and he dishes out plenty of it, including a gruesome torture sequence in which (spoiler alert) Dr. Kersey slices open a miscreant's sciatic nerve.
Only violently expressed vengeance seems to snap Kersey out of his grief and depression. His vengeful rampage makes him feel better, and his behavior lights up talk radio airwaves as callers are encouraged to debate whether he's a "zero or a hero."
Death Wish has less to say about the agony of grief than about the supposed thrill of rapid gunfire. Moreover, a DYI attempt at dispensing justice by a well-educated white man seems especially tin-eared in the post-Trayvon Martin era. Add Parkland and a heated national conversation about guns and who should wield them, and the movie becomes even more reprehensible.
I'm not sure we ever needed a Death Wish reboot, but we sure as hell don't need one now.
*Thanks to Rotten Tomatoes for the ability to quickly check reviews on older movies.