The 1974 Charles Bronson classic Death Wish, directed by Michael Winner, was based on a 1972 novel by the same name written by Brian Garfield. Both are about a mild-mannered Every Man. His wife is murdered and his daughter raped, instigating a vigilante killing spree that mostly targets muggers. In 1983, director William Lustig followed up his 1980 horror film Maniac with a similar story of an Every Man, played by Robert Forster, called Vigilante (aka Street Gang), whose wife is hospitalized and son shot to death, which leads him to join a group of vigilantes after the system fails to bring his family justice.
While critics largely disliked Death Wish upon its initial release, it was a hit with movie goers, reflecting a growing anxiety about urban crime. New York City saw triple digit growth in violent crime between the mid-1960s to the late-1980s. In the ’70s, New York City was broke, the police force was undermanned and underfunded, and some neighborhoods looked like war zones. You can see this reflected in a number of films from the era, such as Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Friedkins’ The French Connection, Hill’s The Warriors, or Ferrera’s Ms. 45. Death Wish was a cathartic release of a movie, but remains problematic to this day, especially considering an irresponsible modern-day remake from Eli Roth on the horizon. Vigilante, on the other hand doesn’t suffer from the same issues as Death Wish, which seemingly takes a pro-vigilante stance (the source novel does not, and the author was not happy with the film as a result). It’s not that Vigilante’s protagonist(s) are necessarily more moral than Death Wish’s Paul Kersey, but that Forster and Fred Williamson’s characters don’t just go on a sociopathic murder spree of muggers, but are after rapists, drug dealers, and the “system” that created them. Their mission, while still illegal, at least feels more noble in the long run.
I grew up on the Death Wish films along with other tough guy flicks, like Dirty Harry or Rambo, and still enjoy them to this day, but I identify as a bleeding-heart liberal, so I find the films as repugnant as I do cathartic. These days we are subjected to rightwing gun fetishists verbally jacking off to the idea of “the good guy with a gun,” but your “good guy” is someone else’s Klansman or psycho, so I’m weary of the anti-gun control crowd, who I fear idolize Charles Bronson, but likely harbor darker impulses in their hearts. Returning to the original Death Wish after at least two decades, with a hard shift to the right in America, the increased number of mass-shootings nationwide, mainstream racism, and the National Rifle Association basically owning congress, I found my stomach turning seeing Kersey with mature eyes. Kersey begins the film as a bleeding-heart liberal. He gives the system a chance before starting his campaign of vengeance, but once he has a gun in his hand, he’s nothing but an affluent thug shooting muggers.
Similarly, Forster’s character Eddie starts Vigilante as a liberal, who believes and stands by the system after his family is attacked. Eddie is approached by Nick (Fred Williamson) who asks him to join the vigilante group he has formed with a couple of other co-workers. Eddie stands firm, until the judge is bought off through mob connections and the gang leader Rico goes free. Enraged, Eddie tries to attack the judge and winds up getting thirty days in jail. Eddie emerges from his prison sentence a changed man, ready to join Nick and take down everyone who either hurt his family or those that failed them.
Kersey attacks the symptoms, while Death Wish fails to address this. Vigilante addresses the root cause, with Nick and Eddie taking aim at organized crime, gang violence, and corrupt officials. Death Wish makes the cops culpable to Kersey’s crimes, while Vigilante shines a light on inner city distrust of the badge, something that’s so relevant today with the high number of police shootings in black neighborhoods. Death Wish is a cro-mag film made by a British director who supported Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and commented that if he were Prime Minister he’d “be to the right of Hitler.” Lustig on the other hand, came from the Bronx, one of NYC’s roughest boroughs, parts of which had some of the worst urban blight in the country. Lustig put it all on screen in his films, making Vigilante feel more real and less like a tough guy fantasy.
At the end of Vigilante, we see Eddie crossing a major line, one that there will be no coming back from. It’s easy to imagine him as an urban Kurtz, fighting his own war, on his own terms, and winning. At the end of Death Wish, Kersey is gone. The cops let him go and as the credits roll we know he’s not ready to stop regardless of them making him leave town, and he’s no more noble, no more a hero, for the ordeal he’s just survived. There’s no sequel to Vigilante to siphon off the power of the original and reduce it to a thuggish cartoon. From Part 2 on, Death Wish is a joke, regardless of how entertaining the movies are or aren’t.
I don’t believe Death Wish is a relevant movie in 2018. It’s a classic action/exploitation film, for sure, but it has nothing to say to modern audiences. So why are we getting a 2018 remake and what the hell is it going to say that won’t further to embolden the alt-right, good guy with a gun narrative? The film will star bald, white Bruce Willis, a doctor this time, instead of an architect, or an accountant as he was in the novel. Based on the trailer, it seems director Eli Roth is going to ramp the action up, making his version more akin to the sequels. Willis will half grin and deliver his lines in his usual deadpan mutter and dispatch bad guys who are poorer and less white than he is. I don’t want to see that. Instead, I’d rather direct you to Blue Underground to purchase their special edition Blu-ray of Vigilante, with two commentary tracks with Robert Forster, Fred Williams, and Bill Lustig. It would be a far better use of your money.