After I heard the news that this to be remade with Joe Carnahan at the helm (and no doubt Liam Neeson in the title role) I realised I had never seen the original. I've seen Parts 2 and 3 but not the original – so why not track it down and take a watch?
Death Wish, directed by Michael Winner and starring Charles Bronson, is something of a classic and cult status movie. Released in 1974, and based on the novel by Brian Garfield, the premise is basic – Bronson's wife and daughter are attacked in their own home and his wife is killed, so Bronson starts to clean up the streets by himself as a vigilante.
The film is not an easy watch. I get the impression that the filmakers seem in part confused to what it wants to be. Is it a thriller? Is it a drama? is it a action movie as the latter 80s sequels became? (the sequels feel almost a parody of themselves). The original feels like a noir thriller. Bleak is the word that best sums up the style and tone of the piece.
Let's talk about that scene and get it out of the way. We all know what scene- the rape and battery of his wife and daughter. Yes, the scene is haunting, disturbing and all the above- it's a difficult view. The main thing thats disturbing is the mother is beaten and the daughter is forced to engage in a sexual oral act.
Now here's the thing. After you've seen the film in full, you ask: why? Why did Michael Winner feel the need for this scene to be this strong? You would think to give Bronson's character a real motive for the things he does. Well, yes and no – the problem is Bronson never finds out what actually happened.
Sure, he knows his wife was killed. But his daughter becomes catatonic from shock and then during the film has a complete psychological breakdown and she never talks or tells anyone what happened to her. Not to be to graphic, but the medical staff wouldn't have known what had happened as penetrative rape did not take place. This is what is perverse to me– Winner directed this scene, he orchestrated such a graphic scene and there just is no need for it to happen for the story to progress. It's a horrible scene and a complete waste of time. Bronson's character would have had enough motive to become a vigilante without the rape – because he didn't know about it! It's a paradox– wrapped up with an obviously perverted director.
Leaving that scene now.... the film has a plodding pace- where events just unfold without any great thought, where Bronson goes on a revenge murder spree. He starts off small and then slowly gets more daring and blatant with his killings of the muggers, purse snatchers and drug dealers of New York. What's unforgivable for a film is not caring for a character– and this film is guilty. I didn't care about Bronson. His performance is more wooden than a Chippendale wardrobe– he is just terrible. What is interesting is the politics within New York Mayor's office as Bronson strikes – the crime rate has actually lowered and the police officer in charge is told to find who's doing it and not to arrest them, but to get them to leave the city, to literally get out of Dodge! This is a nice nod to westerns and a nice touch overall.
The film leaves you with a mixed bag of emotions – namely this sick feeling in your mouth because of the unnecessary rape scene, a central character with the emotion of a chimp, a perverted old man directing and a hidden interesting thriller wanting to come out!
I will watch the re-make and I will hope for a version that's worth watching. I like the premise, I love (Spolier) that the central character never finds the peole responsible for his wife's death, he gives out justice on anyone he can find. I will be interested to see how they can make it believable in a modern city that someone could do this. I mean, we live in a modern media/tech world where every street has CCTV and every person has camera on their phone. I look forward to seeing these answers.
As for the original – avoid it, or just watch the TV version!