The Eli Roth-directed remake of 1974 action film Death Wish debuted on Friday, with this one starring Bruce Willis starring in the same story structure as the original: A man’s family is hurt, and he takes justice — and firearms — into his own hands in order to get revenge.
When the original Death Wish was released in theaters, the crime rate in America had skyrocketed over the past decade and was still on the rise. Then-president Richard Nixon’s emphasis on law and order resonated with a Middle America uneasy in an era of anti-war protests and riots, when radicalism seemed to be creeping past their white picket fences. Death Wish’s central character Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) was a cathartic figure, a symbol of paternalism and masculine strength as a way to enforce justice for crime and social unrest. He was borne of, and defined by, his era.
So why remake Death Wish — which spawned four sequels — more than 40 years later?
“I asked the same question,” said director Eli Roth (Hostel) in an interview with EW on the MGM title. “The answer is, for me, so many of the same problems that were plaguing the country — that crime is out of control and police are overwhelmed and there’s no way to stop it — still feel very relevant today. It feels like however far we’ve gone in other areas, we have not progressed in terms of crime.”
But the thing is, we have. Crime rates, especially in recent years, have been on a substantial decline. The violent crime rate for 2017 was the lowest recorded since 1990.
And yet the sentiment Roth expresses may be correct — as he phrased it, for some it feels like we haven’t progressed in terms of crime. It’s something Donald Trump tapped into during his presidential campaign, even invoking the name of the film (“What was the famous movie? Where he went around and he sort of, after he wife was hurt so badly and killed… The late, great Charles Bronson? Name of the movie? Come on! Death Wish! One of the great movies,” Trump said to a crowd at a Nashville rally in 2015).
“Crime,” as a term, can be a stand-in for a vast myriad of ill-defined social anxieties, the things that threaten an idyllic and unchanging existence. The small tweaks in Roth’s remake may evoke those feelings as they apply in 2018; his film is set in Chicago, not New York.
This new Death Wish‘s first trailer featured Willis firing off pun-y one-liners and shooting down villains to a vintage rock ‘n’ roll song, AC/DC’s “Back in Black”; it was quickly criticized for glorifying gun violence.
“When people watch a trailer, they’re judging based on two-and-a-half minutes of material, and if it’s Bruce Willis shooting a gun, cut to AC/DC, some people are going to draw that conclusion. What I really try to do more than anything is show it how it really is, and leave it for the audience to decide,” Roth said. “One thing I’m very conscious of as a filmmaker in Hollywood is not telling the audience what to think, or how to think, and you can make the same argument about John Wick or Taken. Any action movie you can say is a pro-gun movie. It’s giving a story that allows people to discuss a difficult subject. In the same way Get Out came out, everyone was allowed to discuss race and racism because of the movie.”
And the film’s marketing seemed less interested in nuance. A new online ad for the film featured Bruce Willis against the background of an American flag, behind the tagline “HUSBAND, FATHER, PATRIOT.” in reference to its character who commits extrajudicial murder. (The film finished third this weekend at the box office behind Black Panther and Red Sparrow, with an estimated $13 million domestically.)
Post-release, critics have continued to slam the film for arriving at the wrong time during a national discourse on gun violence and the NRA. But in speaking with Roth two weeks ago, it was obvious he didn’t intend for the discussion surrounding this movie to center on guns — or rather, that it was not a conversation he particularly wanted to happen at all. “I wanted to really make it about family, and stick to the central issue of what would you do if this happened to your family,” — and again, later in the interview — “The movie for me really is about family and protecting your family and what do you do when you can’t get justice for your family?
“It’s not pro-gun,” he continued. “What I really try to do more than anything is show it how it really is, and leave it for the audience to decide.”
The press day for Death Wish was scheduled for Feb. 15, coincidentally the day after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida; the event was ultimately canceled. “With any tragedy, your heart goes out to the victims, first and foremost,” said Roth, responding to the Parkland school massacre. “I think the release is going to be the release, but you’re not going to go out front and center the day after talking about a movie like Death Wish. It just felt like that wasn’t the right time.”