A History Of Violence: Eli Roth, John Wick, And The Morality Of "Gun Porn"

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.

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.

At this point, Winner's Death Wish has ceased to be just a right-wing piece of fantasy, and has moved into much more sinister territory. Not only is the film rejecting the liberal values that promote fair punishment and understanding toward the poor (not to mention fair trials for all the world's criminals), it also seems to be rejecting the nurturing love of motherhood. Paul Kersey's "soft heart" is essentially blamed on his mother's pacific disposition. Once his father died, we are to infer that Kersey stopped being able to defend himself and his family because he was educated by a kind-hearted woman, as opposed to a male aggressor who was obsessed with weapons of violence. It's a misogynistic viewpoint that is absent from the book, but becomes a focal point of the film, as Kersey must shed the very "feminine" way in which he was raised.

The gun almost seems to be a "graduation present", as Kersey now goes from merely being a passive defender against injustice to a full-blown vigilante, roaming the streets and seeking out crimes to thwart. As he aimlessly prowls the dank alleys of New York, a mugger assaults Kersey and he shoots the man to death, prompting yet another bout of physical unease (manifested in actual vomiting). Nevertheless, he fights through it to continue his personal crusade. It's at this point that his politics are treated as a disease that must be very literally expelled from his body in order to become stronger. Killing hardens him as he purges his "feelings" for criminals after every violent act of vigilantism, and once Kersey murders three more men in the streets, his transformation is complete; the liberalism he once used as a shield is replaced by his bearing of arms in the face of tyranny.

In turn, Kersey's vigilante acts inspire other New Yorkers to stop trusting the criminal justice system and take the law into their own hands, and the wave of self-made policemen becomes so widespread that City Officials tell the investigator in charge of bringing Kersey to justice that they don't want to see the perpetrator arrested, as it would only lead to him becoming a martyr in the eyes of his newfound army of do-gooders. Death Wish ends with the detective finding a wounded Paul Kersey in the hospital and offering him a truce: "leave town and no charges will be brought against you." Like the train-robbing cowboys of old, he's a gunslinger operating outside of the law. Only even those who wear a badge and a gun still deem Kersey a necessary evil in stopping the awful plague that's clogged the arteries of a society's once great heart.

Eli Roth & the Death Wish Legacy

In a weird way, Roth's Death Wish continues the legacy of the franchise fairly well, and mirrors how the movies evolved from fairly restrained fantasy to action/exploitation hybrids more fit for midnight movie mavens than anyone looking for a respectable night at the movies. There was no Herbie Hancock score, nor the original's gritty sense of realism when Death Wish II was released eight years later in '82. Like every other sequel after it, the follow-up would shed its progenitor's overt politics in favor of simply being a cartoonish revenge thriller.

Paul Kersey has moved to LA and seemingly picked up the pieces of his shattered life at the outset of his second chapter. Once his daughter Carol comes out of her coma, his existence is seemingly complete. But after a run-in with a group of muggers (no one could ever accuse this series of really having an original thought following its inception), Kersey, Carol and his Spanish housekeeper – who is viciously gang raped, bringing back the series' fetishistic fascination with sexual violence – are all brutalized. After Kersey is knocked out, the muggers kidnap his daughter and rape her in their hideout. Carol attempts to escape, jumping out a window and impaling herself on the railing below. Following the funeral, Kersey gets his handgun out of the closet and brings his vigilante ways out of retirement, setting up shop in a dilapidated room downtown. Before long, he's methodically mowing down the men who killed Carol and brought his violent tendencies back to the surface.

The exploitation turn the franchise takes isn't surprising at all, seeing how the rights were purchased by Cannon Films from Paramount and producer Dino de Laurentis. Originally intended as a directorial vehicle for the infamous Menahem Golan (of the Gloan & Globus producing team behind Cannon), Death Wish II was eventually given back to Winner at the insistence of Bronson. Winner and Bronson shared a long working history together, as the director helmed The Mechanic ('72), Chato's Land ('72), and The Stone Killer ('73) before the '74 Death Wish. Yet Cannon's trashy fingerprints would be all over the series from this point forward, as both Death Wish III ('85) and Death Wish IV: The Crackdown ('87) follow the male fantasy/revenge route instead of having anything else to say politically.

Roth's gory, kill-focused remake falls in line with the evolution of the series, which saw Death Wish III turn Bronson into a full-blown murder machine, and a patron saint of bad cinema. There are so many moments in Winner's third entry where the "bad movie lover" inside us all should be cackling with joy. A young black kid who seemingly appears out of nowhere during various moments of the movie to cheer every time Kersey dispatches a "creep"? A rape victim dying of no cause whatsoever in the hospital after Kersey is told over the phone that "she only had a broken arm"? A love interest that goes nowhere and is punched in the face before being launched into a fiery car wreck? Death Wish III and its two successors – we don't speak much about Death Wish V: The Face of Death ('95), out of respect for the families involved – are bastions of bad taste, just oozing with a callous disregard for life itself.

Yet that's also why these moral criticisms of Roth's movie ring somewhat false, as they seem to forget the history of the franchise. Is Roth's Death Wish a good sequel? Fuck no. It's downright boring compared to the reckless fascism that became Winner's calling card even outside the series (for the pinnacle of his lurid insanity, please see his anti-human Nancy Drew riff, Scream For Help ['84]). Yet anyone with knowledge of both Roth's films – which included the "misogyny"-baiting gender inverted Hostel II ('07), and his shameless trolling of "Social Justice Warriors" during the ad campaign for The Green Inferno ('13) – and the series' long history of horrid taste should've probably adjusted their expectations before sitting down with the '18 iteration. Still, the question remains: why is his movie unacceptable, while revenge fantasies like John Wick ('14) are still met with rabid anticipation?

The Damnation of John Wick

The "acceptability" of movies like John Wick is feasibly rooted in the arc regarding its own hero's damnation. The original Keanu Reeves shoot 'em up is – like mild-mannered Paul Kersey's transformation from surgeon to literal heartbreaker – about a man who wants to live a quiet life, until his home is invaded by a gang of thugs, who beat John, kill his puppy (the last gift given to him by his now dead wife), and steal his cool ass car. Little do these Eurotrash douchebags know, they've awakened a monster, as Wick was once the most ruthless assassin in the New York underworld; the so-call Baba Yaga, whose name alone struck fear into the hearts of even the biggest crime syndicate bosses.

Most of the fun in watching both John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 is derived from marveling at the expert choreography that's employed by former stunt team turned directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. Their frames become high and wide transmitters for the action set pieces they designed and trained Keanu (plus a team of incredible performers) to flawlessly execute. During pre-production, the star was mentored by multiple two and three-gun experts, as well as a number of martial artists. His every movement has been ingrained via a series of exercises, so that Reeves is now essentially a skilled assassin himself, moving through neon lit clubs as he puts bullets in the brains of all oncoming opponents. There's pure cinematic joy found in the tangible practicality of it all, even if many of the squibs have obviously been CGI'd in post.

However, this is where the minor moral hypocrisy comes into play for those who would damn something like Eli Roth's Death Wish, while simultaneously anticipating the climactic third installment in the soon to be complete Wick trilogy. The movies' heroes are almost inseparable from one another in terms of motivation (and one could argue that Kersey's inciting incident is a far more rational trigger for revenge). They're both white dudes, with guns, looking to kill any and all bad men who step into their path. Frankly, John Wick: Chapter 2 might even own a more blatant moment of "gun porn" than anything in Roth's remake, as Peter Serafinowicz's firearms sommelier recommends everything from high-caliber machine guns, to automatic shotguns, to an assortment of sharp blades for "dessert" (his "meal pairings" nothing more than code words for different forms of combat Mr. Wick may encounter on his current mission to kill an Italian Underworld Queen).

In his piece for The Guardian on the sequel, Jordan Hoffman said:

"John Wick: Chapter 2, a string of elaborate bullet ballets with only trace elements of a plot, is hardcore gun pornography, pure and simple. And when the imagery faded (along with the hoots 'n' hollers of the audience) I felt sunk in a crater of guilt, choking on a miasma of shame."

However, what may have relegated Hoffman to the minority opinion sandbox is the fact that Chapter 2 packs a significant amount of character work that screenwriter Derek Kolstad was already building toward in the first movie, particularly with one repeated line of dialogue, from a dying mafia boss to the titular assassin: "Be seeing you, John." 

Hell is where Mr. Wick is headed, as Chapter 2 essentially becomes the Notes From the Underground of action cinema (or, if you prefer Greek mythology to Russian literature, an interpretation of Orpheus and Eurydice). Wick is our Underground Man, slipping deeper and deeper into a pointless, oppressive society, each kill confirming his status as a tool, as opposed to a human being. The soul he thought he rediscovered after completing his "impossible task" and leaving the murder business behind to settle down with his sadly passed better half was nothing more than a lie he'd told himself in order to cover up the meaninglessness of his own existence. In essence – though the movie waves guns and violence in our face, letting us revel in the taking of life – every confirmed kill acts as a shovel of dirt on John's grave, his soul buried beneath a pile of misdeeds; a shameful death, if there ever was one.

The difference between John Wick and Death Wish is how each film chooses to value its gun violence. While the set pieces in both Wick films are some of the greatest since John Woo delivered a trio of all-timers in The Killer ('89), Bullet In the Head ('90), and Hard Boiled ('92), the existential ramifications on the movie's eponymous death dealer are genuinely devastating. Meanwhile, Roth's iteration of Paul Kersey is bound to make any card-carrying NRA member fist pump in the theater, glad that the various hardware showcased on screen was put to use in the name of vanquishing "bad men" once and for all. The John Wick films are exercising a certain notion of moral responsibility in assigning consequences to their anti-hero's actions, while Kersey gets to plug one in the chest of a neighborhood dealer called The Ice Cream Man before delivering a Schwarzenegger-ready quip: "I'm your last customer." The proof is in the plasma pudding, as it were; a fine moral line that's traversed by its respective filmmakers.

In the Audience’s Debt 

Still, the question remains: do these filmmakers even owe us any moral responsibility at all? The movies discussed here are all shamelessly exploitive in their own ways, and thus operate as fine-tuned pieces of middle-brow entertainment. The fact that Roth essentially got the goat of many critics means that the lifetime member of filmic troll club possibly succeeded in what he claims he was attempting to do: start a conversation (fiery or not) regarding the hardware that his camera's ogling. At the same time, Leitch and Stahelski are delivering precisely what their audience want: immaculately arranged dances of destruction, slathered in neon, that use action as pure cinematic storytelling. Should current events – namely gun violence in America – affect how they approach their work going forward?

According to this tracker of school shootings in America (since 2013), there were six incidents of classroom gun violence before John Wick: Chapter 2 was even released in theaters on January 30, 2017. There were twenty-six before Eli Roth's Death Wish was released on March 2 of this year. In short, none of these acts occurred due to these creatives, or their films. They're instead the symptom of a much more horrifying disease: America's refusal to regulate firearms and help treat mental illness. Until we actually hold our lawmakers accountable (and they, in turn, obey the will of the people as opposed to deep-pocketed lobbyists), shaming moviemakers for simply crafting their individual, idiosyncratic works seems like we're tsk-tsking the wrong people, especially when we can't even keep our standards regarding what's acceptable in these pictures totally straight.

Obviously, film critics are capable of both caring about what's onscreen, as well the atrocities occurring in reality, and this isn't a knock on the individuals who were horrified by Roth's fetishistic portrayal of a white man's urban outlaw justice. Just as filmmakers aren't necessarily required to run their movies through some sort of rigorous ethical checklist during the final editing process, critics aren't obligated to simply give emotionless, unbiased opinions regarding these works. Neither violence, nor the art that's created while it plagues a country, happen in a vacuum, and if you release a movie like Death Wish in such close proximity to a national tragedy, writers have the right to give you a bit of a critical spanking. That's the beauty of free speech: Eli Roth can make whatever movie he wants, but those paid to critique his films can also take him behind the woodshed because they think it arrived at a most inopportune time.  Though America is now a diseased wasteland of seemingly unending gun violence, our freedom of expression, on both ends of the creative spectrum, is easily our most beautiful right. The wisdom regarding its application remains to be seen.