The satirical intent of Eli Roth’s gleefully schlocky remake of Death Wish, the notorious 1974 Charles Bronson crime thriller, seems unmistakable – except that the vast majority of commentators seemed to have missed it entirely. However, while Roth’s redux, which sees ageing tough guy Bruce Willis sleepwalking through the role of Paul Kersey, trauma surgeon turned gun-wielding vigilante in the wake of a violent home invasion that leaves his wife (Elisabeth Shue) dead and daughter (Camilla Morrone) comatose, is certainly in bad taste – that’s kind of the point – it’s by no stretch badly timed.
In the wake of the recent and horrific mass shooting in Florida, “too soon” is the most common criticism being leveled at the film, which might have sailed under the radar as a mid-range, middling quality action flick even 18 months ago. But given the sheer scale of gun crime in the United States, waiting for a more opportune release window would be akin to waiting for Godot. There’s an argument that perhaps the film, packed as it is with gory violence and fetishistic weapons imagery, should never have been made which is, frankly, weak sauce: it is here, it exists, and it behooves us to grapple with it as it stands, and in the social context in which it exists. And while Death Wish follows the familiar narrative map of countless revenge thrillers before it, and yes, it features numerous scenes of dour-visaged Bruce Willis grimly blazing away at various malefactors, and again, yes, it is leeringly unsubtle in its presentation of on-screen violence, it is clear that Roth is not here to praise American gun culture, but to bury it. And if there’s a time to do that, it’s now.
If nothing else, Willis’ Kersey is a spectacularly inept vigilante. He injures himself when first firing a gun in anger. He comes within inches of shooting a woman he’s trying to rescue from a carjacking, He is repeatedly outmaneuvered by Knox (Beau Knapp), the arch-villain he’s bent on tracking down (in the original, Charles Bronson never clapped eyes on the men who attacked his family – a telling point of difference). He emerges victorious not through skill or grit, but through dumb luck, the laziness of the system as personified by two harried cops played by Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise, and the bull-headed “a man’s gotta do” arrogant confidence of the white male baby boomer. He’s a paragon of toxic masculinity, not because he’s a bully or a beefcake – an early scene pointedly shows him backing down from a loudmouth on the sidelines of a soccer game – but because he buys into the “good guy with a gun” myth once his buttons have been pushed. And he wins because the invisible narrative structures of the film, like the invisible social structures of the real world, are set up to enable him to do so.
Make no mistake, Kersey is the butt of the joke here (Death Wish is frequently, and deliberately, laugh out loud funny), but Roth builds a whole off-kilter universe around him, one in which suburban home life is just a ’50s sitcom with 21st century home appliances (Shue plays the swiftly dispatched Mrs Kersey like a modern day June Cleaver), but the big, bad city is filled with deranged criminals who will prey upon the unsuspecting when granted the slightest ingress. As an emergency surgeon in a Chicago hospital, Kersey straddles both realms, paying for his pastel-coloured dream home by patching up (or failing to patch up – a lot of people die on his watch) the denizens of the lurid, neon-drenched, smoke-wreathed netherworld, before it reaches past him and snatches away his family. From then we follow him on his journey – he’s Orpheus descending into the underworld (and his basement – apparently gun-happy avengers like to crash in the rumpus room), looking for a reckoning.
His immediate port of call is, of course, a gun shop,wherein a buxom sales assistant (Kirby Bliss Blanton) apprises him of her personal preferences in lethal hardware and winkingly tells him that paperwork and gun safety courses are no obstacle to gun ownership for a man of his, ahem, calibre. It’s an utterly savage bit of business, a bleakly hilarious indictment of the gun business, and not a million miles away from the kind of schlocky satire that Paul Verhoeven used to traffic in.
Of course, back when Verhoeven was grinding out genre masterpieces like Robocop the distance between the exaggerated scenario on screen and the world outside the window was both vast and clearly discernible. What chills the blood of a non-American observer is the possibility that, for American commentators, the gap has narrowed to such a degree that the cinematic equivalent of Poe’s Law comes into effect, and what to Australian eyes is an obvious parody of the American Right’s views on guns becomes, to a native critic, an endorsement thereof.
Further complicating the matter is the film’s difficulty in marrying its satirical nature with the plot and tonal demands of the revenge thriller subgenre, which becomes increasingly pronounced as events progress and Willis – whose utterly bored and disengaged performance, it must be said, is a weird delight here – is called upon to go into action hero mode, fending off another home invasion with a gun in each hand and a deep well of merciless rage. Is the film saying that Kersey could have prevented the initial crime if he’d been present (and armed to the teeth)? Or is the sight of the elderly Willis blazing away with a machine gun so inherently ludicrous that it deliberately undermines the very notion?
The latter, surely, although well armed white men have done enough awful damage of late that it’s understandable if the joke is lost. Still, at some point you have to trust the faculties of the audience, and a few too many reviews have severely underestimated the capacity of the hypothetical viewer to pick up what Death Wish is putting down. Roth’s film is wilfully offensive, yes, but in the manner that has always been the province of “low brow” entertainment – there’s a long and storied history of cheap genre flicks smuggling loaded cultural commentary in among the blood bags and gratuitous nudity, and this is just the latest example, albeit a more controversial one than we’ve had in a while. Attempts to address these issues in a loftier manner are often doomed from the get-go; even Netflix’s The Punisher, a series that draws from a none-more-pulpy source, stumbled badly when it tried to take a mealy-mouthed centrist stance on gun control. By contrast, Death Wish embraces the gleefully grotesque, cartoonish excesses of its genre, and comes out well ahead on points.