New York in 1974 was a frightening place. Not only was it not safe to walk down the street for fear of being mugged but, even at home, that last bulwark against the horrors of the street, there is the very real danger of invaders raping and pillaging. So is the New York of Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974).
Time has been good to New York, which is now touted as one of the safest cities in the world. It makes sense then, for a remake of Death Wish to seek out a new location for its vigilante hero – and where better than the City of Death, Chicago?
While initially following the same plot, there is a point of divergence at which more than just the location makes these two films so very different. Once such difference is Bruce Willis’ Paul Kersey having a brother rather than the weaslley son-in-law of the Bronson film. Maybe it just couldn’t be expected, in the 21st Century, that a man would remain to support a wife who had been raped and traumatized to the point of catatonia? As annoying as Steven Keats’ character, Jack Toby, may be, he does prove himself a loyal husband and worthy son-in-law.
Divorce rates in the United States rose from 33% in 1970 to 48% by 1975, so it’s not as though society’s prohibitions exerted pressure on Jack to stay by his wife’s side. Though not a particularly likeable character, Jack Toby does prove himself a most stalwart man and, as unlikely as it seems, in a film about the break-down of society, he becomes something of an ideal example of a what a man should be – a kind of civilized everyman, who finds it within himself to carry on in the face of adversity without – contrary to his father-in-law – allowing the nasty and brutish pulling him up short.
Vincent D’Onofrio’s Frank Kersey plays no such contrasting role in Eli Roth’s 2018 remake of Death Wish. Though D’Onofrio takes what he’s given and runs with it, as he always does, his character is there, not to question his brother Paul’s actions, but to offer support and assistance. Although Jack Toby is successful in his own right, Frank Kersey is, almost inevitably, that Hollywood-movie stereotype of the less successful brother who sponges off his wealthier sibling. The only hint of originality in the drawing of this character is that he gets to pay back the $2000 he borrowed.
The distinction between these two characters is important. In the 1974 version of Death Wish Paul Kersey’s options are not limited to picking up a gun and blasting muggers to Hell. He has the option exemplified in Jack Toby, of responding stoically to the tragedy visited upon his family. By 2018 there is no such option. There really is no need for that speech delivered by Paul’s father-in-law as he blasts away at poachers. This Paul Kersey has no other option but to take up the gun. Stoicism in the face of adversity is no longer an option – no one lives the example.
In a culture that seeks to personalize rights, there is no need for stoicism, no option but to seek vengeance on those who have transgressed the individual boundaries that separate, paradoxically destroying the very idea of a society, for how can we possibly live together when our all-consuming concern is with what is right for me rather than us?
Though he might adopt questionable methods, the Paul Kersey of 1974 seeks only to take on the threat to society, never showing any compulsion to find and punish those who murdered his wife and rendered his daughter a vegetable. As odd as it may seem to those brought up on films like Eli Roth’s Death Wish, Paul Kersey, in Michael Winner’s original, never takes what has befallen his family personally. Bad things happen because there are bad people, and Paul seeks to reduce their numbers as a favour to a society living in fear. There is no hint that Charles Bronson’s character ever believes that, for whatever reason, fate has chosen him from among the inhabitants of New York to suffer and, through that suffering, rise to a task only he is fit for. There is no wailing about having failed in his duty to protect his wife and family. No guilt over having failed in this duty.
We cannot ignore, however, the character development that reveals that Paul Kersey actually is suited to the task. He is, because his father was a hunter, expert with a gun. He is a war veteran, albeit a conscientious objector during the Korean War, which also serves to show him to be not only a man of conscience but one willing to stand up for what he believes. And he is angry, as we see in his reaction to Jack Toby asking him how he can appear to be so calm after he has so recently been to see his catatonic daughter.
There is a logic to Paul Kersey’s actions in 1974’s Death Wish that doesn’t exist in the far inferior 2018 remake. By the time Paul takes to the streets, placing himself exactly where he needs to be to encounter those who would take advantage of others who seek only to live according to society’s norms, we know that his actions are in-character. In 1974, Paul Kersey does not need his audience’s approval. Having made the choice to live only for personal gratification at the expense of others, the muggers Paul hunts have forfeited the right to legal protection. He will be their judge and executioner because his conscience insists he take a stand and, once having done so, he must act according to what he believes.
It is probably unfair of us to expect a director who was only two years old when the original Death Wish was released to have a similar sense of character development. If Eli Roth does actually have any sense of how to develop either a character or a story, it is not in evidence in his remake of Death Wish. As Max Zoller Seitz points out, this version depends entirely upon our recognition of Bruce Willis and thus our willingness to simply take for granted that he is not biting off more than his action-hero credentials can chew.
The development we do get is superficial at best. Willis’ character’s first act of vigilantism is random – he comes to the aid of a car-jacking victim. Though he deals with it far more efficiently and cold-bloodedly than any neophyte should, it serves as a learning experience, preparing him for the far more emboldened attack on the Ice Cream Man, a dealer forcing kids to sell his drugs in their neighbourhoods and schools.
It is at this point that the more recent version of the film shatters the template of its 1970s progenitor. As mentioned, all of the earlier Paul Kersey’s ‘victims’ are random – either they attack his person directly or are caught in the act of beating up on another. In 2018, only the first act of vigilantism is random. The second, the Ice Cream Man, is selected because Dr. Paul Kersey assures a young patient that he’s going to be alright. In 2018, a doctor’s duty of care towards his patients includes ridding the streets of those who prey upon the young and innocent!
It makes sense, then, that, after acting on behalf of another, seeking revenge on an identifiable individual for the hurt caused to an innocent, that Dr. Paul Kersey would seek to cauterize his own wounds by seeking the same brutal justice on those who injured him. How can a man who believes that the murder of his wife and coma-inducing attack on his daughter are personal attacks on him, not take matters into his own hands and assuage his sense of personal failure by hunting down those responsible?
In Roth’s version of Death Wish, there is no sense of justice for all. Dr. Paul Kersey is not acting out of some misguided belief in the need to protect society, nor out of the strength of his conscience, as we might see the architect Paul Kersey doing in Michael Winner’s Death Wish. Dr. Paul Kersey acts, as one can only expect in a world of personalized rights, entirely selfishly, for his own personal ends, with no thought or consideration for issues bigger than himself.
Whatever one’s views on the morality of the original Death Wish, there is an argument within the film that suggests its hero need not have taken the course of action he did, that there was at least the possibility of Paul Kersey opting for Jack Toby’s stoicism. Even if one does not agree with the character’s decisions and consequent actions, it is possible to still identify with him because he is a man who must do as his conscience dictates and not for his own personal, selfish reasons, but for the good of society.
Dr. Paul Kersey is no better than those who invaded his home. He is one of the bad people who make bad things happen. For, like the criminals he seeks to punish, he cannot see beyond his own personal needs.