Filmgoers of a certain age will remember an ageing Charles Bronson in Death Wish, a low budget b-movie made in 1974 that went on to turn him into a star on American soil. Loosely based on Brian Garfield’s novel of the same name, its vigilante storyline was set in Harlem, New York, at a time when the city was dealing with disproportionately high levels of crime and corruption.
Director Eli Roth (known more for his work on horror films such as Cabin Fever and Hostel) has resurrected the story and moved it into present-day Chicago, a city now synonymous with gun violence. The film was originally due to be released last November but a mass shooting in Las Vegas saw it delayed for 3 months.
Yet only three weeks before its new American release date in March, 17 people were killed in Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida. Given the regularity of these incidents, there is never likely be a good time to put this type of film into cinemas.
Despite changing the setting in Death Wish, Roth keeps the story pretty much the same as Michael Winner’s original. Bruce Willis plays surgeon Dr Paul Kersey, a man so deadly calm you’d have thought his colleagues would’ve checked for a live pulse. His safe middle-class life is turned upside down when his home is burgled and his wife Joanna (Elisabeth Shue) is killed and teenage daughter Joanna (Camila Morrone) hospitalised in a coma.
So begins the transformation of Paul from sewing people up during the day, to tearing them open at night as he tries to track down the men responsible and bring some justice back to the streets. If ever the NRA needed free promotion then its seems Eli Roth is ready to offer his services.
What complicates matters further is the transplanting of the story into Chicago, a city where gang gun crime has long since spiralled out of control. Low-income areas are where the suffering occurs in real life, typically made up of black and Latino communities. The high fatality rate is used by Roth as nothing more than a backdrop for an enraged middle-aged doctor to seek retribution, turning it into the most literal definition of exploitation filmmaking you can imagine.
Putting aside the clumsy racial and social politics, Death Wish delivers its violence in unspectacular fashion, while creating a character who seems to be oddly enjoying his moment of infamy. There’s something darkly fascinating beyond Willis’ twisted smile, but it is one of many ideas and themes that remain untouched, instead opting for a straight-as-an-arrow, Taken-style narrative.
The 1974 original faced up to a largely negative critical reaction on release and over forty years later little has changed. Eli Roth’s biggest mistake was using the backdrop of hundreds of real-life deaths for this generic thriller in the belief it meaningfully engages with the current gun ownership discussion. Despite the criticism, Charles Bronson had his moment in the spotlight and his version went on to become something of a cult classic. The likelihood of Roth and Willis repeating history seems pretty slim.