With the Death Wish remake currently in cinemas, we revisit James Wan’s true successor to the vigilante throne.
You could say Death Wish had a lot to answer for.
The 1974 exploitation “classic” from future restaurant critic Michael Winner is a wonderful bit of brainless action that goes about its job with cold efficiency. Sort of like its lead sociopath, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), a well-to-do architect “forced” to blow away criminals after his wife is killed and his daughter is raped. 70s New York was awash with crime back then, of course, and audiences cheered as Kersey wiped away the underworld like a swatter meeting a fly. It’s entertaining sleaze, I guess, but Winner and his aging star made no attempt to make Kersey culpable in his actions. All we get is a brief two-minute scene to make him seem remorseful (well, about as remorseful as the stoned-face Bronson could project). With its advocacy of violence, it’s no wonder one critic called the film’s message “incendiary.”
Another vocal critic was Brian Garfield, the writer of the original Death Wish novel, who frowned upon the movie’s appraisal of vigilantism, and was compelled to write the sequel novel Death Sentence (1975), a much more ethical take that was completely ignored for Death Wish‘s trigger-happy sequels (there were four, ending with Death Wish V: The Face of Death in 1994). It seemed like Garfield’s creation would be forever branded as morally-repugnant trash, but that’s where 2007’s highly underrated Death Sentence comes in.
James Wan is a name that carries more weight now, making this particular box office bomb more fascinating in hindsight. Hot off the success of the original Saw, the director didn’t waste time changing tack, eager to prove himself as more than just a horror helmsman. In Garfield’s novel, he had the perfect template for one of his favourite genres – the good old vigilante action flick. This time, however, and unlike 2018’s pitiful Death Wish remake, our “hero” is truly and irrevocably changed after taking the law into his own hands. This, my friends, is not a good time in the way Bronson blowing away a man with a rocket launcher is a good time. This film actually has scruples.
Family man and risk analyst Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) has his perfect life shattered when a local gang kills his eldest son (Stuart Lafferty) in a deadly initiation ritual. Distraught and dissatisfied with the law’s treatment of his son’s murderer, Nick ends up taking the situation into his own hands with bloody results. Now, he has to protect his grieving wife (Kelly Preston) and his youngest son (Jordan Garrett) from the reprisals of resident hood Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund) and his crew of disposable degenerates.
It goes without saying that we’re immediately on Hume’s side and cannot wait to see him snuff these gits out, but it all comes at a price. His first kill isn’t the clean, effortless gunfire of Bronson, but a sloppy, unplanned scuffle that results in the accidental death of his victim. Bacon’s immediate guilt and disbelief is powerfully played, informing the audience that the moral dilemma won’t be tossed aside in the name of entertainment. A key theme here in a very Chris Nolan-y way is escalation, and when Billy and his goons come calling, Nick has no choice but to continue the bloodshed. This culminates in a bravura single-take chase sequence in a multistory car park in which Wan stylishly convey’s Nick’s fear and survivalist instincts. Though we will come to pity Hume, we can’t help but smile at his empowered line, “You’ll be surprised at what you can do… when the time comes.”
The escalation continues and Wan fully commits to the bleakness of his narrative, but not at the expense of pitch black humour. Billy’s father is played by none other than John Goodman, who essays a memorably vile gun salesman who will sell-out his own kid for a bag of cash (“I guess that makes you a preferred customer”). Screenwriter Ian Mackenzie Jeffers is quite clearly contrasting each family to the point that, when Nick goes all Taxi Driver, we are baying for blood and questioning our own ethics in the process.
Death Sentence is a generally well-made film, with Charlie Clouser’s score casting a fittingly grimy pall which perfectly matches John R. Leonetti’s harshly contrasted photography. As is often the case with Wan, it looks a lot costlier than its reported $20 million budget. I will also stand behind Bacon’s fearless performance, and for me, this is one of his better roles; Nick Hume goes on quite the emotional rollercoaster, and the veteran star is willing to go wherever his director takes him. If you want to compare him to Bronson, the Woodsman wins hands down.
I’m not saying this film is perfect, however. You should never start a movie like this with family home movie footage. It always feels clichéd and trite. I can also do without seeing rain-swept funerals, crying in the shower to project a character’s emotional state, and the infrequent use of cringeworthy “emo” tracks which feel, like, so 2007. There’s no doubt in my mind that, if he was given the same material now, Wan would make a better product overall, but for his third picture, he produced an adult, affecting morality lesson that has the guts to venture into some really fucked up places (and it never, ever makes you feel dirty for watching it).
Death Sentence deserved to do better, and compared to its cinematic brethren, it is positively humanitarian; the uniformly bad reviews denouncing it as empty exploitation are wrong. Don’t go and watch Bruce Willis be bored for two hours, just give this one a go!
- When Nick puts the gun to the head of one of Billy Darley’s men, he asks the man where he is. The man says “Stygian Street.” Stygian (2000) is the title of one of James Wan’s student films. Stygian Street is also the name of the street of Jigsaw’s first lair in Saw (2004). “Stygian” usually refers to the River Styx (near Hades, the underworld).
- To prepare for the role as Billy Darley, Garrett Hedlund studied a documentary about lions to portray Billy’s animalistic nature.
- When Bones Darley is opening up his gun safe, he quotes a line from The Crow by James O’Barr – “Fear is for the enemy. Fear, and bullets.”
- Despite the deviations from the novel, Brian Garfield was extremely happy with the film and praised it for understanding and making the central theme very clear.