Death Sentence movie

(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: not only is James Wan’s Death Sentence a good movie, but it’s also the only Death Wish remake we need.)

There’s a new Death Wish movie hitting screens this week, and while I’ll walk into it the same way I approach every film – hoping for greatness – it’s difficult to actually be all that optimistic. Not only has this remake been made redundant by four decades’ worth of movies about white men getting revenge with guns, but its journey towards production has seen a handful of interesting choices sidelined in favor of bland mediocrity. Instead of the once-rumored Benicio Del Toro for the lead, we now have Bruce Willis’ disinterested corpse. Instead of the Israeli filmmakers behind Big Bad Wolves announced for the director’s chair in early 2016, we now get the not-so subtle talents of Eli Roth. Instead of a fresh and interesting revenge tale, we’re getting what appears to be another empty and generic action film. (Seriously, watch the trailer.) It’s all made even more unfortunate by the realization that the only Death Wish remake we needed already came and went with nothing but empty theater seats and a 20% score on Rotten Tomatoes left behind.

Death Sentence Death Wish

Literary Beginnings

Like 1974’s Death Wish, 2007’s Death Sentence is also based on a novel by Brian Garfield. It was published three years after its far more famous sibling, and while it’s a direct sequel that follows Paul Benjamin’s (Paul Kersey in the films) further adventures, it differs somewhat in its approach towards the idea of vigilantism. The novel sees Benjamin trying to settle back into a regular life only to be disturbed by both new criminals and copycat vigilantes who are far less concerned about the possibility of causing collateral damage or taking innocent lives. There’s a commentary of sorts on the dangers of taking the law into your own hands, and it’s no surprise that Hollywood went in a more sensationalist direction with its own sequel and eventual franchise.

Garfield says he wrote the novel as “a sort of penance” for Death Wish and its clear celebration of vigilantism. He wasn’t denouncing the earlier novel, but he wanted to offer a rebuttal to the idea he himself propagated regarding revenge and vigilante justice being a suitable answer to violence. That downer intrusion of reality isn’t exactly a recipe for audience fun, though, so just as Robert Bloch’s Psycho II novel was optioned and ignored in favor of more Norman Bates shenanigans, Garfield saw his creation’s onscreen future equally confined.

Death Sentence was adapted for the screen by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, a writer whose only other screen credit is as co-writer of Joe Carnahan’s excellent The Grey. (Perhaps not so coincidentally, Carnahan was originally set to write and direct the new Death Wish before leaving the project behind. His script remains.) Jeffers’ script abandons the connection to Death Wish along with its infamous character, but he keeps its questions and themes. Instead of Paul continuing his fight against crime, we’re introduced to a new lead character along with his wife and two sons. Violence takes one of their lives, putting protagonist Nick Hume on a course for vengeance, but unlike the characters played by a stone-faced Bronson or somewhat sleepy Willis, our “hero” hasn’t got the first clue when it comes to murder or mayhem.

Happily, director James Wan does.

Death Wish subway

The Relevance of Death Wish

First, though, what makes 1974’s Death Wish such a precious bird anyway? Any film can be remade, and just as an adaptation can’t ruin the book on a shelf, a remake can’t hurt the original. But some films can make the thought of a remake seem unwise due either to the original’s quality or place in time. No one would ever be foolish enough to remake John Carpenter’s The Fog or John Carpenter’s Halloween, for example, as neither film can be improved. Unlike those two movies, Death Wish is no piece of genre perfection – there are acting issues throughout, dialogue is often ill-fitting, and the tone is only sporadically as grim as it probably should be – but it’s a film that very much speaks to and belongs in its exact time.

After decades of flat-lining, the violent crime rate in New York City began a meteoric rise in the 1960s and 1970s. The city’s citizens grew increasingly frightened and terrified of a new breed of criminal fueled by gang activity, drug use, and questionable fashion choices, and into that powder keg was tossed an avenger named Paul Kersey. He did what the average Joe couldn’t and turned the tables on thugs, rapists, and wannabe killers alike, and in the process he became the mustachioed slice of catharsis the population desperately needed.

Charles Bronson‘s presence in the role was a major factor, too. He was already well-known as a tough guy onscreen, but prior to his two films immediately preceding Death WishChino and the terrific Mr. Majestyk – his characters were typically hardened and capable well before their respective films began. Kersey, though, is an average guy with a regular job and a general distaste for guns who’s pushed too far and too fast by tragedy. The film left audiences empathizing with Kersey’s rage and cheering him on as he mowed down muggers with impunity. People needed to see that someone could stand up to the encroaching spread of crime, and Death Wish gave them that image.

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