Death Wish rocket

The Redundancy of Death Wish

Of course, it also gave them four sequels (the last two of which are subtitled The Crackdown and The Face of Death) over twenty years and the creation of a sub-genre that’s still going strong today. Kersey stops growing as a character and instead becomes a lightning rod for violent criminals as everyone in his life falls victim to rape, assault, and/or murder, leaving him to clean up the mess. He does so typically by making even bigger messes – he uses a rocket launcher on a deserving scumbag in the third film – as the films devolved into pure action silliness.

He wasn’t alone, either: films about vigilantes and people taking the law into their own hands became a popular story line for the B-movie crowd. The Exterminator, Defiance, Rolling Thunder, Vigilante…they’re undeniably entertaining movies, but while other sub-genre outliers found a home in blaxploitation or with gun-toting women in the lead, most of these examples were content putting white men up against usually non-white but visibly villainous thugs who they inevitably beat to the sound of a rousing score and the faint echo of off-screen applause. It became formulaic even before Death Wish‘s end credits stopped rolling, leading to the likes of Fighting Back, The Boondock Saints, The Punisher, and more.

A remake today feels wholly extraneous in a world where hundreds of similar films already exist and in a country where the crime rate is in a relative decline. There’s just no call for it in a popular culture already overflowing with violent action movies about bad guys catching heat from the wrong end of a gun. Don’t get me wrong, I love these kinds of films and the simple pleasures they deliver, but a Death Wish remake with Bruce “Zzzz” Willis in the lead will have the same impact as a film titled Acts of Violence, First Kill, Marauders, Precious Cargo, Extraction, Vice, The Prince, or any number of other very real movies starring Willis over the past four years.

Death Sentence bald

James Wan’s Death Sentence Is the Only Death Wish Remake We Need

As mentioned above, Wan’s film does not match Garfield’s novel in plot specifics, but it retains the most integral elements responsible for elevating it above the bloody fray. Nick (Kevin Bacon) is still an average white guy who loses something very precious through an act of malicious cruelty and violence. Lacking faith in the court system and visibly distraught by his son’s murder, Nick tracks down one of the young men responsible (Matt O’Leary) and kills him during an ugly, messy, unplanned fight to the death. There’s a sense of justice and catharsis – hell, Bronson’s Kersey never actually caught the guys who attacked his wife and daughter – but it comes with multiple costs.

First up is the psychological, as Nick’s action breaks him even further emotionally. Wan shows him washing the blood off, accompanied by a haunting score, before collapsing to the bathtub’s edge while crying. It’s a devastating moment as we realize he isn’t simply another tough guy getting revenge – he’s a human being whose taking of a life has threatened his own, both physically and emotionally. This isn’t going to be a slick action film. It’s going to be clumsy and raw as a desperate man trades everything he has left to seek revenge for something already gone. His collapse deflates our own sense of satisfaction, and it’s an unusually welcome feeling as the surface-level action “fun” is joined by something weightier and mean.

Second is more physical punishment as the spinning wheel of violence comes back around to him. The remaining ruffians, led by Billy (Garrett Hedlund), take their turn and strike back at Nick, leading to more losses on both sides. Like in Steven Spielberg’s masterful Munich, we’re forced to watch and root for a good guy in a fight against evil with the unfortunately omnipotent understanding that he’s simply contributing to a perpetual motion machine fueled by pain, suffering, and blood. For each battle he “wins,” there remains a war he never will.

It’s undeniably a far heavier and supremely depressing take on the whole vigilante sub-genre, and no one should have been surprised that general audiences responded unfavorably. That’s no knock as they’re understandably looking for escapism and satisfaction in their infrequent jaunts to see action movies at the theater, but the critical drubbing is harder to defend. Wan pairs the film’s themes with style and viscerally constructed set-pieces making for a visually striking feature, but the violence typically chooses brutality over simply looking cool. Furniture and flesh break and bleed with abandon, and we also get a sweaty, sketchy John Goodman as Billy’s even more vile nightmare of a father! The whole thing is a grimly entertaining experience that shifts effortlessly between adrenaline rushes and kicks to the heart.

The film recasts the Death Wish formula with an understanding that while our impulses may disagree, violence simply cannot be the answer to every problem. It’s not a sexy realization and won’t leave you feeling particularly good about the world, but it’s no less important for its undesirability. Sometimes entertainment hurts.

It turns out the title Death Sentence isn’t meant as some snarky, ’80s action movie phrase regarding the bad guys’ fates – it refers to Nick’s sentencing of himself. The murder of his firstborn son is a tragedy, but pursuing vengeance well beyond reason and his capability opens the floodgates to something even worse. “Sometimes it’s just chaos,” he says by way of belated understanding, and sometimes it’s chaos of our own making.

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