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The Uneasy Evolution of the "Death Wish" Series

For better or worse, the “Death Wish” franchise has advanced a controversial commentary on the nature of American culture and entertainment.
Paul Kersey never set out to be a hero. Following his 1974 debut, in the successful though explosively provocative first film of the Death Wish series, and after a string of four widely-lambasted sequels and an even more derided remake, many think he never should have been. As played by Charles Bronson across the five preliminary features, and by Bruce Willis in the newest incarnation, this character, an initially middling and mild-mannered architect (surgeon in the remake), is routinely, mostly unwittingly, thrust into a world of incessant, brutal violence. His quest for revenge is at first a primal and fathomable reaction to an assault on his wife and daughter (the former dies as a result, the latter is left in a catatonic/comatose state), but growing ever more convoluted and pitiless, his subsequent forays into vigilante justice attain varying degrees of clichéd, cartoonish excess. No longer was his target an almost abstract social condition; by the time of Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994), Kersey’s objective was specific and conventionally common. Nuance, thoughtful incitement, and profound moral ambiguity began to waver under the pressures of external expectations, from audiences, executives, and society at large. Yet through it all, the films that encompass the Death Wish franchise remain remarkably cohesive in terms of consistent themes and formal patterns. And now, with the 2018 rendition, which explicitly conjures the original film while simultaneously tapping into a litany of contentious contemporary concerns, the series and all it stands for is again, for lack of a better phrase, in the crosshairs.
As the first Death Wish film begins, the violence that was once on the periphery of Kersey’s existence, as a water cooler topic of detached disquiet, literally hits home and invades his white-collar complacency. His political inclinations—notoriously liberal, a conscientious objector during the Korean War—have left him credulously beyond the felonious reach of the streets. The incongruous notion of this prosaic pacifist suddenly turning into a gun-toting vehicle for unaided retaliation sets up the superficial shock of the picture, the somewhat formulaic depiction of a lone man resisting the fiercer demons that invade his consciousness, eventually succumbing to those primitive urges. The latent beast that burrows deep within the most peaceable of individuals can burst forth when push comes to shove and one’s serenity and security is threatened. Kersey’s exploits catch on quick in the first film, capturing the imagination of an equally victimized public. It establishes the primary provocation of Death Wish, to reconcile the suggestion that reactionary murder is not the answer, while statistics indicate a potential solution, albeit a morally dubious one at best.
Despite this purportedly valiant manifestation, which grows ever-embellished, Bronson’s dauntless defender is an unpretentious, ordinary champion. Kersey is a humble man, not easily shaken; in the direst of situations, he remains calm and soft-spoken (his unflappable conduct in the face of one death after another is particularly peculiar; see the casually ruthless end of 1987's Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, for example). Though his performances grow more rigid as the films progress, Bronson’s Paul Kersey was never an exaggerated icon of musclebound bravado, even if the star himself was extremely health conscious and by all accounts in exceptional physical shape. For this reason, among others (being firmly associated with the action genre and its respective tropes, conveying a coarsened, unyielding fortitude), the casting of Bruce Willis in the 2018 remake seems rather astute, given his own appeal as an Average Joe in extraordinary—Die Hard—situations.
In Death Wish 3 (1985), Kersey is essentially let loose to tame a tumultuous neighborhood with immunity and autonomy, and Bronson’s protagonist wastes little time in his resolving pursuit. The ensuing movie is a full-throttle attack on pervasive, brazen lawlessness. As in the prior and succeeding films, there is a solid motive to launch Kersey’s actions—ever flimsier and eventually immaterial—but his murders are not necessarily acts of purely nascent furor; his mission is more methodical as he comes into his own and consents to his fate and ability. Indeed, there is a growing delight in the conflict and antagonism, evinced in scenarios where he lures the bad guys and creatively, if crudely, ensnares them in his operation with compelling humor. As per the norms of 1980s action (and even Death Wish V feels like a prototypical ‘80s film, while the 2018 Death Wish simply wants to be one), Kersey is also cocky and quick to quip: “Do you believe in Jesus?” he asks one ill-fated target. “Well, you’re gonna meet him.” The films likewise contain a requisite emphasis on weaponry, ranging from pistols and shotguns to machine guns, missile launchers, and exploding wine bottles and soccer balls, eventually climaxing in the latest Death Wish with a giddy split-screen montage of arsenal readiness, fervently set to the rock-and-roll strains of AC/DC (a notable musical counterpoint to the first film’s Herbie Hancock score and the Jimmy Page riffs that punctuate films two and three). To that end, Kersey similarly exhibits a patent evolution in his defensive capabilities, from a sock-full of quarters in Death Wish to the latest military-grade technology in most every film thereafter (he returns to a handgun in the recent outing, again assuming remarkable proficiency despite his amateur status).
Kersey’s character undergoes his most fundamental identity shift in the 1982 Death Wish sequel, where he literally changes his appearance to get into character; a shot of his silhouette through a curtained window recalls Superman’s obscured turn in the phone booth just prior to adopting his own heroic facade. As seen by the finger-gun wink conclusion of Death Wish (knowingly copied at the end of the remake), Kersey accepts his new lot in life—eagerly, begrudgingly; it’s a fluid partition—so that by the time of Death Wish II, the perpetual hard-luck case relocates, refreshes, and amplifies his continual solitary crusade. Recurrently unable to avoid confrontation, his character dramatically evolves, reflecting the unique style and tenor of each corresponding film. Having apparently crafted and honed a clandestine persona (he habitually hovers between who he really is and what he has done, receiving an alias in the fifth film and donning a costume of sorts in the most recent), the Paul Kersey of Death Wish II emerges as a fully-formed action hero…following an initial impetus for retribution, of course. Attempting to locate the latest batch of assailants, he hits the streets in a slumming thrift store guise, transforming from workaday Everyman to nocturnal crusader (amazingly, Kersey is able to keep a career intact throughout the series). Kersey prowls the mean streets in the name of unrequited righteousness, like a ghostly overseer for the greater good, lurking in the darkness and literally, as in one particularly stunning image from Death Wish II, looming above the streets in a towering shadow cast upon a nearby building.
Though the notion of living this dual life and having it kept secret from those close to him is left largely underexplored in the original quintet, the 2018 Death Wish in unique in this regard, given this Kersey’s vigilante moonlighting frequently merges with his surgical responsibilities, anxiously building to a potential workplace reveal. Also left unexamined (perhaps due to the series’ progressively shallow concentration), is the notion that Kersey’s past may well weigh heavily on his conscience. His prior deeds carry enduring legal repercussions, and he becomes something of a law enforcement folk hero, but only the dream sequence start to Death Wish 4 implies inner torment, as Kersey emerges like a spectral figure who identifies himself as “Death” incarnate (in an unrelated echo, he is dubbed “The Grim Reaper” in the new Death Wish). He shoots an assailant, but when he turns the body over, he is staring down at himself.
There is, however, throughout the five initial features and the contemporary version, a marked fondness for the past, for a simpler time, a time of innocence since corrupted. Kersey and his wife begin the first Death Wish in a tropical paradise, an ultimately unfortunate juxtaposition to what follows and an illustration of all that will be lost. Returning to the concrete jungle of New York, the car horns and traffic jams are cues to the disintegrating state of their city, where dozens of murders are committed on a weekly basis and crime rates soar in what Kersey’s co-worker calls a “war zone” (the first of several times in the series when war is evoked either in conversation or dramatic presentation). As police and the common citizen struggle to curb the rampant hostility plaguing their community, Kersey, and by extension the Death Wish films, struggle to find reasons for the violence. What becomes painfully clear is the nihilistic realization that there are none; such crime is universal and malleable, as the later films attest to. This despair generates a justified, cynical lack of trust in America’s protective institutions, and a sweeping disdain for ineffective systems marred by abuse, bureaucratic impediments, and individual hypocrisies. In the newest installment, feeble police, the usual target of this authoritative contempt, fail to not only arrest the drug peddlers, murderers, and thieves, but are inadequate when it comes to poachers and panhandlers. In the series’ most precariously alluring concept, the solution then comes down to the individual, and as Kersey generates irrefutable results (but at what cost?), his efficiency appeals to a populace dismayed and disheartened by the powers that be. It’s an identification that forms a sizable part of Death Wish’s essential ethical ambivalence. Referred to as a “man who doesn’t run,” “a very good citizen,” and a “guardian angel,” Kersey taps into something deeply affecting and afflicting those around him, ingratiating himself with the hopeless and helpless, inspiring confidence in their own resolve and eliciting excited expressions of approval (a block-wide applause in Death Wish 3 is the best example).
Moving between New York and Los Angeles, and now Chicago in the new Death Wish (where Kersey spent some time between the first and second films of the series), these movies are often inseparable from their setting. Born out of a specific milieu, the inescapable random violence of Death Wish’s 1970s New York City turned over to the synchronized gangs of L.A. in the early 1980s, where although crime is also on the rise and fear has gripped the population, the hostilities seem less a product of the city itself and more a confluence of youthful malaise and heedless vandalism. By contrast, with the third film, the arena has become drastically insular, removed from the world at large and centered within six square blocks of near post-apocalyptic anarchy; ironically, this contained environment produces the series’ most over-the-top crescendo of countless bodies getting charred, shot, and stabbed, and a neighborhood left in utter ruin. Owing to the upgraded caliber of criminal (international drug dealers in Death Wish 4, organized crime in Death Wish V), as well as a change in director, from Michael Winner on the first three films to J. Lee Thompson and Allan A. Goldstein on the latter two, these backdrops steadily grow less visceral, less gritty, and less superficially intimidating; they become absorbed in a modish, neon, sterilized blandness. The situational plane of the franchise is vividly renewed in the latest chapter, where director Eli Roth transmits a jaundiced vision of Chicago into imagery that is both sleek and technically polished and is yet bristling with corrosive carnage. Like Winner with the original Death Wish, he accentuates the significance of the metropolitan setting by presenting a city fraught with tension and aggression; a radio DJ calls it “the city of death.” Though the Windy City has been similarly realized in films like Chi-Raq (2015) or the Showtime series The Chi (2018), the distressing Death Wish depiction of Chicago appears to be further tainted, at least in part, by present-day political rhetoric, which paints the town as an urban hell on earth.
After Death Wish V, which was released through a new studio founded by Cannon Films honcho Menahem Golan, who with cousin Yoram Globus had produced the first four titles, a sixth film was proposed, even after Bronson passed on the offering (the fifth Death Wish would be his final theatrically-released feature). That pitch went nowhere, but what followed were more than two decades of stop-and-go development on either a remake or another sequel, a process that saw the involvement of several different stars, writers, and directors. Now, at long last, with the (delayed) opening of the Death Wish re-do, the film—its very existence—has been met with a predictably sectarian maelstrom of resentment, which straightaway translates to a pan of the picture itself (primarily by critics, it should be noted, if not the average moviegoer). The reaction has been two-fold. First, since trailer one, months before anyone had actually seen the movie, a smattering of terms were volleyed about, terms commonplace in today’s sociopolitical discourse. There were accusations of overt fascism, alt-right ideology, and a theoretically dangerous proffering of stand-your-ground pretext. That was when the film was supposed to come out late last year. At the moment, as the movie finally sees the light of day, Death Wish comes on the heels of yet another appalling mass shooting in America. While there are significant, commonly overlooked dissimilarities between these recent acts of harrowing bloodshed and Roth’s film (and the Death Wish series generally), the sad fact of the matter is there has never been a period in modern America when violent movies were not uncomfortably illustrative of a concurrently violent society. If this Death Wish is the wrong film at the wrong time (and it is hardly the only guns-a-blazin’ actioner to grace the silver screen; trailers before the movie testify to that), the real takeaway is that this wrong time has been prevailing for decades—certainly since the first Death Wish—and shows no sign of improvement.
Similarly, as racial tensions reach escalating points of indignation (though again, this is sadly nothing new), Roth’s Death Wish has been chastised for its ostensible bigotry. The earlier films had warily tread this road before, with characters observing Kersey kills more blacks than whites, a statement countered by another who says more blacks mug people and that’s why (“racial equality among muggers!”). But the issue of race itself was left relatively inconsequential; Michael Parks’ gangster in Death Wish V is perhaps the only prominent, unambiguously racist character in the series. In the new Death Wish, by comparison, race is at the forefront, and is compounded by debate surrounding gun rights and accessibility, issues also first alluded to in the 1974 Death Wish and voiced outright in the 1994 film: “Guns have their uses,” says Kersey, who then consents, “Idiots with guns make me nervous.” There is no subtlety in the way Roth incorporates these elements into his film. The picture is fueled by (and feeds, some would argue) existent racial fears and fetishistic firearm fantasies, all couched within an underlying paranoia. Recalling an article of clothing now synonymous with racial injustice, arguably the most racially-charged aspect of the film, a talk radio DJ laments the prospect of a “white guy in a hoodie killing black people” (to be fair, he kills a lot more than just black people), and there are likewise broad characterizations that have understandably led to charges of discrimination, though that stereotypical representation is also symptomatic of the series’ poor writing (only the first film feels like it actually has something to say). As a franchise continually resuscitated, the criminal element of the Death Wish run becomes a fluctuating component, but few of the villains—or the heroes for that matter—have ever been especially complex. They are mostly generic tokens, either anonymous, conceptual figures picked off by Kersey as he happens upon them (he never does encounter the instigating hoods of the 1974 Death Wish), or they are conventional baddies, distinct yet standard, barbaric, rag-tag gangs or imitative masterminds.
Pick your poison, though, for race is but one potentially problematic facet of the Death Wish series, though some are undeniably less substantial than others. There is the treatment of women, who are either promptly and viciously assaulted or left to wither in general irrelevance (usually dying after that); or, more germane to the plots of at least three of the six films, especially the 2018 entry, there is the economic stimulus for the crimes, crimes that are more indicative of class disparity than any other outward bias (Kersey is mocked in 1974 for his underprivileged sympathies). Previously unfamiliar to the cycle is the social media buzz associated with Kersey’s feats in the most recent film, as well as the inevitable knee-jerk responses (seen in the picture itself and evident online since the film’s release). Interestingly, given that Bronson’s and Willis’ advancing age is a recurring critical talking point, and complaint, only ageism seems to get a pass.
Inevitably, the focus returns to violence, imbedded in the fabric of humanity and a staple of global cinema: see the self-reflexive Old Tucson Studios visited by Kersey in the first Death Wish, a tourist trap where Western violence is big business and manipulative entertainment, or trace a comparable narrative thread from Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo to Leone’s 1964 Fistful of Dollars to Death Wish 4, where Bronson, like Mifune and Eastwood before him, pits two rival gangs against each other. There is an on-the-nose impression of inflated gun-lust in the new film, where Roth sardonically illuminates the absurd advertising and abundance of armaments, and there is an uncomfortable glee in the slaughter, as Kersey enacts the violence in increasingly better spirits and with a disturbing degree of comfort, less hesitation and more enjoyment. What the first Death Wish identifies and critiques, the later films have celebrated and exploited. In that primer feature, when Kersey and his wife engage in wistful discussions about when and how one should remain civilized, their innocuous comments point toward a key theme of the Death Wish course: the blurred line between freedom and lawlessness. Throughout these six films, though with lessened import until the remake, the skewed and skewered distinction between urbane apathy and proactive, tyrannical action becomes one of the more controversial propositions of the franchise: Kersey in 1974 debates the “old American social custom of self-defense,” while at the end of the 2018 release, his actions are wholeheartedly endorsed by the police, who say Kersey only defended his family, “like any man would.”
Every movie is in some way reflective of the time and place in which it was made, and this surely holds true for each film of the Death Wish series, not just in terms of now-antiquated clothing, music, and attitudes, but with regards to a nation’s social constitution, warts and all. While blatant political observations seldom resurface with any durable resonance in Death Wish, save for rudimentary reflections on the death penalty, law enforcement efficacy, and the perils of economic anxiety, the points are well-made, hinting at layers of depth seldom afforded to such fare. The content can be entertaining and incendiary, cathartic and infuriating, disconcerting and exuberant, and repellent and regrettably apposite all the same. And this accounts for the broad impact of Death Wish’s longevity and popularity. Equal parts mirror and Rorschach test, these films come and go, their controversies rise and fall, and individual agendas are placed and displaced, and yet the market remains the same. Why? Well, as Kersey wryly observes in Death Wish 3, “This is America, isn’t it?”

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