Revisiting the Original Death Wish

In anticipation of the upcoming remake of Death Wish, I decided it was time to give the original film a look see. It’s been at least a decade since I last saw it, and even then I don’t believe I ever saw the whole thing from beginning to end. For a while, this was one of those movies that was always on TV, so throughout my life I’ve been able to mentally assemble the disparate pieces into some version of completeness. Chances are, many of these a la carte sequences came from the long line of sequels as well. No matter, none of this is high art. In fact, it’s all pretty expressly low art. Which is why I kinda love it.

Based on a trailer alone (with a little help from Eli Roth unfairly having become a sort of punching bag for faux-virtuous types), the 2018 Death Wish has already come under fire for being ill-timed and racist. As these sorts of charges go, there’s no disputing them unless one wants to be lumped in with the worst society has to offer. But for my money, I’ll wait until I see the movie to decide whether its content is irresponsible. Call me old-fashioned.

Then again, after watching the original 1974 classic, I wonder if a version of Death Wish that isn’t ill-timed and racist would even fit the brand. For better or for worse, tone deaf social politics are hard coded into the property’s DNA, despite its source novel having opposite moral concerns (the novel is a criticism of humanity’s dangerous and animalistic tendency toward vengeance — the movie, a celebration of it). That said, the new film is touted to be an adaptation of Brian Garfield’s novel and not of the original film, which means it may hew closer to the novel’s thematic concerns. May. Time will tell.

So what about Michael Winner’s 1974 film? Let’s get into it.

Paul Kersey is a very successful New York architect who, per his coworkers, shows tendencies of being a “bleeding heart liberal.” Paul openly advocates for the “haves” to help out the “have nots” whenever possible. Everyone scoffs at this, most of all his closest business associate who advocates violent extermination of the lower classes. This is what people talk about at work in this movie. Anywho, while Paul is at work, surrounded by mouthy, edge-lord white dudes, his wife and daughter are out shopping. They’ve ordered groceries to be delivered to their house upon their return home, despite the fact that they are out shopping anyway.

At the grocery store, Jeff Goldblum and his friends randomly pull an address off of a bag of groceries which is pending delivery. Guess whose groceries they are!

Jeff Goldblum and his friends go to Paul’s house just after his wife and daughter have arrived home. They con their way inside and proceed to brutally assault the two women. This leaves Mrs. Kersey dead and young Carol Kersey in a catatonic state. Paul and his son-in-law (who refers to him as “Dad” with a rapidity that is downright creepy), seem a little perturbed by this turn of events, but not outright pissed or even sad, which is weird, considering what happens shortly (he clubs a random street tough with a sock full of quarters and then vomits — the vomiting is probably age related).

In an effort to clear his head, Paul leaves his suffering family behind to work on an architectural project in Arizona. Everyone tells him that this is a good idea when really, it’s a total dick move. The dude literally commits his freshly raped and grieving daughter to an institution and then peaces out for a few weeks. Thanks, pops. While in Arizona he meets a gun nut who takes him to a shooting range. “Which war was yours?” the gun nut asks when he sees Paul’s incredible shooting ability. Paul swore off guns when his dad was killed in a hunting accident, but has maintained his shooting skill all the same. It’s like riding a bike I guess.

As it turns out, Paul was a Korean War medic who served as a conscientious objector. But deep down behind his soulless eyes and his wispy mustache we can see that Paul kinda wants to start shooting people because he’s suddenly mad about what happened to his wife and daughter.

Paul heads back to New York and starts killing bad guys. The criteria for what makes a guy bad is pretty loose. They’ve gotta be young, colored (or acquainted with people of color), and wearing a ridiculous outfit comparable to that of Bebop and Rocksteady from Ninja Turtles. He uses blatant entrapment to get young toughs to commit crimes, and then he shoots them to death, while Dad sits in his recliner at home and goes “now THIS is what we need to clean up our world, ever since Obama ruined everything!”

The cops start to catch on to Paul’s antics and follow primarily hunches to narrow their suspect list down to just him. The thing is, crime has gone down considerably now that criminals know that a man in his fifties could step from the shadows and shoot them at any moment. Local government tells the police force that they need to stop Paul, so as to not inspire further vigilantism, but they don’t want to turn him into a martyr by pressing charges. Basically, it’s the same thematic concern as illustrated in the closing credits of The Boondock Saints, only Death Wish, while dumb, isn’t dumb to the point where you can safely assume that 100% of its fans are idiots. I digress.

The cops decide to put the pressure on Paul and instill fear in him so that he stops killing. He doesn’t stop. He just sneaks out the back door to go to his killing fort (a rented office space on a block consisting entirely of independent churches) and then kills people for a bit. This happens a few times, and the cops never seem to check the back door. The lead investigator catches a break when a young officer, played by Christopher Guest, of all people, finds Paul’s gun. Paul is confronted by the cops and told that he should take a job out of town and never return.

Having his racist, personally cathartic vengeance quest now vindicated, Paul takes a job in Chicago. At the airport he sees a young woman being harassed by thugs. He makes a finger gun at them as if to say “I like killing people and I am going to kill you and anyone else who causes crime here in Chicago because I have now tasted blood and my lust for violence shan’t be quenched by mere relocation.”

The sequel takes place in Los Angeles.

So yeah, Death Wish is pretty tasteless, but it’s fun in a fascinating “I can’t believe this is real” kind of way. I would hope that the upcoming remake either follows the novel’s lead or doubles down on the tastelessness of the original film to the point where it’s obvious that it shouldn’t be taken seriously. And if I’m being fully honest, we already had a modern remake of Death Wish. It was called Death Sentence. It’s a loose adaptation of the sequel novel to Death Wish directed by James Wan and starring Kevin Bacon. It’s very good.

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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