Last night I took a break from my reading phase to rent the movie Death Wish.
And I can see why the anti-gun handwringers are super upset over it.
Death Wish is definitely a shoot-em-up.
But it isn’t half bad.
Now, it isn’t the best thing I’ve seen or anything like that.
But there’s no denying it grabs your attention.
The plot is this: A trauma surgeon in Chicago turns vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter put into a coma during a home invasion gone wrong.
There were only a couple of things that bothered me about it.
First, it’s gruesome. I mean brains-splattering-blood-gushing gruesome.
Sometimes I wish movie-makers would give their audiences some credit for having vivid imaginations. I don’t actually need to see a head pop like a brain-filled zit, thank you very much.
If I find myself saying, “Okay, that’s more than I need to see” during a movie, you’re being too graphic.
The other problem I had with it is the film rushes the main character’s transformation.
They do an excellent job setting up Dr. Paul Kersey (the Willis character) as not being the kind of guy who flies off the handle or resorts to violence.
Toward the beginning of the film, Kersey and his wife Lucy are watching their daughter Jordan play soccer. And there’s this annoyingly loud bully Dad shouting obscenities at the refs. Kersey quietly tells him to take it down a notch – there are children here.
And when the loudmouth tries to start something, Kersey refuses to take the bait. In fact, when loudmouth starts moving toward him, Lucy intervenes and moves Kersey away from the jerk.
After Lucy’s funeral, her father and Kersey are driving away in the old man’s truck. But Lucy’s father stops, drives off the road, grabs his shotgun and chases off some poachers.
Paul Kersey stands stunned as Lucy’s dad fires the shotgun. Each shot makes him jump – not a lot; just a skosh.
Then, it is Lucy’s dad who drops in Kersey’s mind the kernel of truth that sets him on his course.
“People rely on the police to keep them safe. That’s the problem,” Lucy’s dad tells him. “The police only arrive after the crime has taken place. That’s like trapping the fox as he’s comin’ out of the hen house. If a man really wants to protect what’s his, he has to do it for himself.”
But the problem I have is they rushed that transformation from non-confrontational, non-violent guy to the man who “has to do it for himself.”
I could see what they were trying to set up. Namely that the cops had too many murders, not enough detectives, and not enough hours in the day to track down every killer.
But I really think that needed to be more impactful in the telling of the story.
Because they rushed that to get the shoot-em-up portion of the movie, I felt like we really didn’t get the opportunity to see Paul Kersey’s journey unfold.
Instead of letting us see that frustration building, they took what I think was a cheap shortcut.
What they gave us was this. Kersey, walking from the El one night, sees a couple of guys harassing a young woman. So he stops and uses the same tactic on them that he used on that bully loudmouth at the soccer game. And he ends up getting beat up for his troubles.
Then he starts down the road to vigilante.
Really? His wife gets murdered and he still flinches at gunfire.
But then a couple guys rough him up and that pushes him to turn into the Dark Avenger?
Not buying it.
Just because you’re making a guy movie doesn’t mean you can’t take the time to flesh out the characters. Let us see his frustration building. Give us that chance to not only see it happening, but feel that frustration ourselves.
The key to a good story is to get the audience thinking, “You know what? If I were in that position, I’d’a done the same thing too.”
And not just the audience members who routinely fantasize about taking a gun and killing bad guys. Even people like me who see killing as that “last resort, only in self-defense kinda thing” – who hope they are never in the position where they have to use a gun to kill.
The film had a golden opportunity to push Paul Kersey to the point where he felt as though he had no other option.
But they never push him there – instead they simply lift him up and place him there without context.
Paul Kersey isn’t John McClane – the NYPD cop from “Die Hard.” And unlike McClane, Kersey needed a big old shove to get to the point of turning into a one-man judge, jury, and executioner.
But not just any shove. He needed a shove that jams him into a corner with no other way to turn.
And “Death Wish” didn’t let us see that happen.
Sure, he was in that corner. But we never got to see him shoved there against his will.
Now, I admit, it’s probably my MFA in Dramatic Writing that prompts me to be so critical of the storytelling aspect of this film.
I’m a character-driven writer. So I wanted to see that character driven – driven to the point of no return, driven right over the line.
Because then it makes it more believable. That’s what gets me to thinking, “You know what? If I were in that position, I’d’a done the same thing too.”
But that all being said, Death Wish is still worth seeing.
The action is undeniably action-packed. And there’s some excellent acting. Hell, even Bruce Willis is pretty good.
And by that I mean his Paul Kersey is absolutely nothing like John McClane.
Had I seen it in the theater after paying fifteen bucks, I would have been disappointed. But you definitely get your money’s worth renting it.
Though, if brain matter makes you queasy, you probably should skip it.
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