death wish and john wick

Eli Roth remade Death Wish, and it arrived on life support in theaters this month. To be fair, Roth’s take on Paul Kersey’s vigilante rampage – which traded in a deceased Charles Bronson for a comatose Bruce Willis – reportedly only cost $30 million and recouped nearly half of that in its third-place bow. If the movie has any staying power or decent international numbers (which is questionable, given its uniquely “American” tone), Roth’s Death Wish will probably break even before making a killing on Redbox/VOD, where groups of gun-loving white dudes will undoubtedly drop three bucks, crack a case of Bud, and chuckle along with another round of Roth’s trademark gore porn.

Critically, Roth’s usual brand of Fangoria-ready mayhem was met with rather steadfast resistance, as many critics weren’t morally ready to buy what this natural born carnival barker was selling.

As Birth.Movies.Death. writer Evan Saathoff put it in his review:

“Roth has a hucksterism I respect, and while I doubt he could have predicted the events of last week or the fact that earlier today people in bullet headbands we’re marrying their fucking rifles (or whatever the hell), it’s also no secret that we’ve had some serious trouble in this country lately. The way Death Wish converses with the fears of your average Fox News viewer is troubling and irresponsible. Perhaps years from now, Death Wish will be just another poor-taste action film. Right now just isn’t the time for this sort of thing.”

Many others echoed this sentiment, saying Roth (and his co-conspirators at MGM) more or less failed to “read the room” by unleashing his update on the Kersey legacy, especially given the fact it came out mere weeks after the country endured another school shooting that left a heap of innocents dead. As Amy Nicholson wrote in her review for The Guardian:

“It’s an awful month to release an action movie where a good guy with a gun stands triumphant on a stack of corpses – even if you support the NRA. Death Wish insults both sides of the argument, including folks who insist our current gun laws are working just fine. “There must be a lot of paperwork?” Paul asks the buxom, camo-clad sales clerk at Jolly Roger’s firearms emporium, whose mascot is a steroidal, one-eyed wolf. ‘Pbbbbbbt, don’t worry,’ she grins. As for the safety classes, ‘No one ever fails.’”

Roth had roused the rabble to such a deafening degree that the director himself felt the need to respond to the ethical criticisms of his movie. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly, the filmmaker continued down his usual provocateur path, stating:

“I wanted to really make it about family, and stick to the central issue of what would you do if this happened to your family. The movie for me really is about family and protecting your family and what do you do when you can’t get justice for your family?”

Roth further elaborated:

“One thing I’m very conscious of as a filmmaker in Hollywood is not telling the audience what to think, or how to think, and you can make the same argument about John Wick or Taken. Any action movie you can say is a pro-gun movie. It’s giving a story that allows people to discuss a difficult subject. In the same way Get Out came out, everyone was allowed to discuss race and racism because of the movie.”

Obviously ludicrous comparisons to Jordan Peele’s landmark, Oscar-winning social horror picture aside, there are actually some sound questions being raised in Roth’s response – namely: are all action movies “pro-gun” or “gun porn”? Furthermore, where do we draw the line as both critics and consumers (not to mention society at large) regarding what type of gun violence is to be celebrated, and which is to be honorably condemned? Most pressing above all: do our artists even owe us any moral debt beyond what they’re attempting to convey with their work?

However, before we head any further into this debate, it’s worth noting just how far back our own cinematic fascination with firearms stretches, and how Michael Winner’s ‘74 Death Wish transmuted that fixation into a frustrated, murderous urban cowboy.

death wish remake

A History of Violence 

According to the Internet Movie Database (which admittedly may not be the most reliable source, but we’re rolling with it), the earliest motion picture to feature a gun is 1894’s Annie Oakley, a documentary short revolving around the real-life sharpshooter from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, performing some trigger trickery with her own rifle. However, the most famous silent cinema appearance of firearms is arguably 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, which even billed itself as “the first feature picture with a plot.” Even in the earliest era of motion pictures, Americans were fascinated with gunslingers, as Justus D. Barnes pointed his revolver straight at the camera, unloading shots in a plume of smoke.

There’s a reason Westerns have historically been one of the most popular genres of film since Edison’s labs invented the kinetoscope. Ditto detective stories, which often ended in our hero shooting his adversary dead once solving the picture’s central mystery. War films rallied audiences around the great exploits of World Wars, before immersing us in the horrors of ill-advised conflicts such as Vietnam. Yet the action movie – which arguably rose to prominence during the ‘80s as a natural extension of car chase cop thrillers such as Peter Yates’ Bullitt (‘68) – took our love of violence to a whole new level. Oiled biceps and large-caliber artillery were hallmarks of the filmic output of masculine titans such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone; muscle toy fantasies made for boys who like to watch things erupt into fireballs, as these one-man armies plowed through waves of adversaries. During the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush years, we were thrilled to watch them kill.

The original Death Wish (’74) straddles the line between proper theatrics and thrill-seeking nonsense, as writer Wendell Mayes and director Michael Winner provided a mix of melodramatic histrionics, muddy politics, and fascist vengeance. Adapting the Brian Garfield’s already meanspirited and despotic novel of the same name, Winner’s first film is more of a slow burn character study than anything else, tracking Paul Kersey’s (Bronson) descent from decent, NYC development engineer who sympathizes with the poor and under-privileged, to a crime control conservative who doesn’t just advocate vigilantism, but picks up his gun and hunts down those he believes have clogged his city’s streets with filth and degradation.

Following the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter, Kersey trusts a justice system that fails him before retreating to Connecticut, where he questions his own manhood as someone who “cuts and runs” in the face of such a shocking and personal crime. Upon returning to the city, he first beats a mugger with roll of quarters he wraps in a sock, shaken by his capacity for violence, but also thrilled by the notion that he can take control of his life, and will no longer be a helpless victim.

However, it isn’t until Kersey takes a business trip to Arizona and meets with a local developer who advocates guns and self-defense as a means to fight off crime that the old liberal is put to death in favor of a flourishing, right-wing monster. While target shooting at a local club, the developer asks Kersey whether he served in either WW II or Korea, to which Kersey replies that he was a conscientious objector, performing his American duty as a medical officer in Korea. However, the Arizonian isn’t going to give up that easily, and continues to inquire how a “conscientious objector learned to shoot so well.” Kersey explains that his father was a “gun nut”, but was killed in a freak hunting accident, and that it was his pacifist mother that raised him into adulthood. Before Kersey leaves the West, the developer gives him a handgun as a going away present.

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