Last week, Lost in Translation pointed out that what may be remembered as an original movie can sometimes be an adaptation. Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson and released in 1974, was based on the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield. Since it’ll take time to obtain the novel right now, I’ll postpone the analysis of the Bronson movie with the book. Instead, I’ll compare the Bronson movie with the 2018 remake starring Bruce Willis.
To set things into perspective, let’s take a quick look at crime rates. When Garfield’s novel was released in 1972, New York City had a historic high in the number of murders committed. The rates were starting to come down in 1974 when the Bronson movie was released, but still high. To contrast, in 2014, New York City hit a record low number of murders, and had a 24-hour period of no reported violent crime in November of 2012.. The reduction in crime rates can be attributed to crackdowns by police and environmental changes, including the change to unleaded gas.
The high crime rates in New York City inspired not just the 1974 release of Death Wish, but also characters like Marvel’s Punisher, who first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man number 129 in February 1974. The idea of someone fighting back against crime was appealing. While superheroes fought crime, they did so because they had powers, though with a Bat-exception. The Punisher represented the average person, being pushed past the breaking point into going after criminals after losing family.
The 1974 Death Wish tapped into that same fantasy. Bronson’s character, Paul Kersey, loses his wife and daughter during a brutal break in lead by a punk played by Jeff Goldblum in his first role. Kersey’s wife Joanna (Hope Lange) is killed during the robbery; his daughter Carol (Kathleen Toby) is brutalized to the point where she dissociates to the point of catatonia and needs to be hospitalized. Kersey feels helpless, but also feels the police aren’t giving their full attention to the case. He starts walking around after dark with a sock filled with rolls of quarters. The first time he is mugged, he fights back, cracking the mugger on the jaw. Both Kersey and the mugger run off. Kersey is shaken by what he’s done, bit the first is always the hardest.
On a work trip to Tempe, Arizona, his client, Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), shows him the sights, including a Wild West show that emphasized how the citizens of a town would stand up when the sheriff can’t. The show and a trip to a gun club to shoot plants a seed in Kersey’s mind. When he leaves, Ames gives him a farewell gift, a revolver.
Once home, Kersey begins his work as a vigilante. On his first outing, he shoots a mugger, leaving him to die of a gut wound in the park. The mugger’s body is found and the police have a new case. Emboldened by his success, Kersey continues his vigilante patrols, leaving a trail of bodies and becoming the talk of New York City and making headlines in news magazines.
The police can’t let a vigilante run amok, so Inspector Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) begins his investigation. His approach is methodical, though starting at a seemingly random point – a list of men who lost family to crime and are war vets. As Ochoa narrows his list down to Kersey, the police commissioner and the mayor lay down the law for him. Crime rates are down thanks to the vigilante. People are fighting back, so criminals are thinking twice before doing anything. Arresting the vigilante removes the one thing criminals are afraid of, so Ochoa is told to encourage the vigilante to leave town, not arrest him.
Kersey’s luck doesn’t hold out long. Three muggers find him; one manages to outdraw and shoots Kersey in the leg. Kersey, though gets two of them and chases the third. Blood loss works against Kersey and he passes out before he tries to recreate a Western shootout. The mugger escapes and the police close in.
When Kersey recovers at the hospital, Ochoa visits. Kersey isn’t able to talk, but Ochoa isn’t in the mood to listen. Instead, he makes it clear to Kersey that the vigilante needs to be out of town as soon as possible and not return. Kersey’s revolver is disappeared and Kersey gets his company to transfer him to Chicago.
The pacing of Bronson’s Death Wish is similar to The Mechanic, also starring him. The film lays out how Kersey’s life changes, how he makes his decisions Death Wish is a violent character portrait of a man who has gotten angry with society, with reason, but doesn’t pull back from the precipice.
The 2018 remake with Willis has to take into account the reduction of the murder rates in New York City. The film does this by moving the setting to Chicago. Unlike New York City, which saw reductions in the rate of violent crimes since 1972, Chicago’s murder rates are cyclical; hitting a peak where residents say enough, falling, then rising up again to repeat the cycle. However, crime rates aren’t at the same level that they were in the Seventies. News, thanks to the 24 hour media, focuses on violent crimes, because they fill air time, so there is a feeling that crime is worse than it is.
Willis’ Paul Kersey has a different job than Bronson’s. The 2018 Kersey is a surgeon, not an architect. Kersey gets to see the aftermath of shootings, as victims, law enforcement, and criminals alike come into his emergency room. The results aren’t always fair; a police officer dies while the shooter survives.
The beats are similar at the beginning of the film. Kersey’s wife, Lucy (Elizabeth Shue), is killed and his daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone), is injured and comatose after three crooks break in and rob the Kersey home. Kersey himself is on duty at the hospital that his wife and daughter are brought to, and is called to the ER to two new cases, only to be stopped by security and a colleague who has to break the bad news.
Two detectives, Kevin Raines (Dean Norris) and Leonore Jackson (Kimberly Elise) are put on the case, but they have a large caseload already. Getting pushed past his breaking point, Kersey tries to stop two men from harassing a woman, only to be beaten up by them. His first attempt at being a vigilante thwarted, he gets a second chance when a shot up gang member loses a Glock in the ER, noticed only by Kersey. He hides the pistol and retrieves it when the ganger is wheeled out after surgery.
Now armed, Kersey makes a second foray as a vigilante. He catches two men carjacking a SUV and starts shooting. He wounds them both, but gets his hand cut by the gun’s slider. To finish his second outing, he shoots one carjacker in the head to make sure he stays done. The other carjacker, behind the wheel of the SUV, dies of blood loss. Unlike 1972, social media is a thing in 2018, and almost everyone has a camera that connects to the Internet. Kersey did have a hoodie with the hood up, but it’s sheer luck that the only people who saw his face are the now dead carjackers.
Raines and Jackson arrive on the scene of Chicago’s latest shooting to interview eyewitnesses. One shows the video she took and uploaded, giving Kersey the nickname “The Grim Reaper” because of how he executed one carjacker. Raines does notice that the Grim Reaper isn’t used to shooting in combat because the slider caught on his hand. Such an injury would be obvious if the Reaper went to a hospital to get taken care of.
Kersey continues his vigilante work. His brother, Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio), notices that things are different with him and finds the basement room where Kersey plans his outings. Kersey, however, has begun to track down the men who killed his wife and hurt his daughter. One by one, he finds them. Two are killed. The last, though, spills the beans to the police about who the Grim Reaper is after Kersey failed to kill him at a nightclub. This last criminal finds out that Jordan is being released and plans his return.
However, Kersey is prepared. He gets a pistol legally. When the last criminal breaks in with two accomplices, Kersey has his daughter hide and call 911 while he plays cat-and-mouse with the raiders. One by one, he takes them out, with the last criminal the last to be shot. The police arrive in force. Kersey’s weapons are all legally purchased and licensed. Raines asks if Kersey ever owned a Glock. Kersey answers he did, once, but got rid of it.
The 2018 remake has more action and shooting than the 1974 but is still a violent character study. The pacing winds up being tighter than 1974 version while still laying out why Kersey breaks. The remake takes into account the changes that have happened in the 44 years between films. The Internet, while existing, didn’t exist in the form it has today. The number of people who could access the Internet was small – academics, researchers, military, and some businesses, not the general public. Today, the Internet has become a needed service, not a luxury extra, and access is common. Instead of news magazines, viral video spreads the word of the Grim Reaper.
The 1974 version implies that while Kersey stopped being a vigilante, he still leans in that direction. Willis’ Kersey, though, took a step back when his daughter came out of her coma. He took more hits than Bronson’s, too. Bronson’s Kersey is treated as more sympathetic and more reasonable as he becomes a vigilante. Willis’ version, though, is shown to be broken and takes the step back from active vigilantism to protecting his family.
The 2018 version also has Kersey hunting down the men who destroyed his family. In the 1974 version, Kersey loses his focus, going after criminals no matter what. The 2018 Kersey finds out about the men who robbed his home and killed his wife and focuses on hunting them. The nature of storytelling may have required that Kersey get closure from his trip to the Dark Side, but it’s another step away from unfocused anger that the 1974 version never got past.
Overall, the remake is more nuanced. The film calls into question the nature of vigilantism, using social media and morning radio to discuss the issue. It shows the risks and the reasons while letting the fantasy play out. The 1974 version treats Kersey as a hero, fighting back, but the times were different, as mentioned above. The 1974 Death Wish is a power fantasy, much like Marvel’s Punisher, coming from the same origins. In 2018, the danger isn’t getting shot during another crime; the danger is mass shootings; a vigilante won’t make a difference there, and the movie reflects that by not mentioning crime rates dropping or the mayor and police commissioner interfering because fear of the vigilante.
That’s not to say that the remake is flawless. There are flaws and it still holds up a vigilante as the hero. The remake, though, shows the problems of vigilantism far better than the 1974 version, and has nuance that tighter pacing helps bring out. This may be a case where a remake is better than an “original” work.