Saturday, December 1, 2012

Underrated Action/Thriller Gems--"Death Wish"

     The subject of this post went through the same type of thing that First Blood (see earlier post) did—the novel, while certainly successful, was overshadowed by the blockbuster movie made from it, or should I say movies, as it became a series of five films.  I’m sure many viewers, especially younger ones, might not even know that Death Wish was based on a book, one which came out before the movie (i.e., it wasn’t a novelization, written from the screenplay).  But it was—written in 1972 by Brian Garfield, and made into a movie in 1974.
     The basic plot of the novel, (and the film) is pretty simple.  Protagonist Paul (last name Benjamin in the book, Kersey in the movie) is a middle class and aged office drone who’s a lifelong liberal.  However, he rapidly starts to rethink his beliefs when his family is the subject of a vicious home invasion by some street thugs.  His wife is murdered, and his daughter is left in a semi-catatonic state.  Torn apart by his insomnia, guilt, and rage, Paul eventually acquires a gun and begins to essentially entrap criminals by deliberately walking around in rough neighborhoods late at night, and shooting those who commit crimes against him (or others.)  The bodies start to pile up, and Paul becomes aware that the police are actively searching for him.
     I saw the film, and came away thinking it was okay.  I was a little disappointed—I’d been told (and read) that it was an action thriller classic, and it didn’t completely measure up to this.  It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great.  There were some decent action scenes, but nothing particularly noteworthy, in my opinion.
     Years later I read the book, and was obviously much more impressed by this version.  Once again like the First Blood situation, I thought the movie adaptation really watered it down.  First off, it was extremely miscast.  I’ve enjoyed Charles Bronson in several films (The Great Escape, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen), but to be brutally blunt, he’s no Olivier, or DeNiro.  He’s not capable of adequately portraying the huge transformation that Paul goes through, the key part of the story.  I don’t buy him as a wimpy intellectual liberal, so when he starts gunning down punks it’s not the shock it should be.  To be fair, it’s not all Bronson’s fault—his lines, and the different tone of the movie hamper this transformation too.  To throw out an admittedly exaggerated example, it would be like if Woody Allen was playing a macho, intimidating character—Bronson just doesn’t work in this role.
     And then there’s the story.  (SPOILERS AHEAD)  The book details how Paul goes through this process.  We experience his pain, his (often impotent) rage, his restlessness.  His immediate family is basically destroyed—his wife is dead, his daughter is a virtual zombie, and his son-in-law who he previously found annoying is now completely intolerable.  The book is fairly lean, but that works for it.  There are no subplots, and there’s very little time spent on other characters—we’re basically with Paul the whole time.  As Paul descends into steadily more amoral forms of vigilantism, we’re appalled (or at least we should be), but we understand how he got there, and sympathize with him to a degree.  The movie glosses over much of this, and just gets to the killings themselves.
     Vigilantism is explored well in the novel.  Paul’s first murder is the most reasonable—he shoots an armed would-be mugger in self defense.  However, subsequent shootings become questionable indeed, until Paul is gunning down people who don’t even know he’s there, like a bunch of teenaged car thieves and a guy toting a stolen TV set down a fire escape.  To sum up, our hero goes from killing people in self defense to murdering people committing more minor crimes against property.  (I’m not defending theft, I’m just saying I doubt most people would think stealing an empty car (or a TV!) warrants the death penalty.)  The famous Nietzsche quote “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster,” comes to mind, and Paul has definitely become one.
     The movie takes a different tone to this.  Paul’s vigilantism is more cut and dried, and defensive.  He kills more people, but only armed muggers who are actively threatening him, or someone else.  And this is where, in my view, it goes wrong.  Instead of showing why vigilantism is bad, how it creates more of a problem and doesn’t solve anything, it glorifies it, making Paul the hero.  Which is more unrealistic.  A person who goes around shooting muggers isn’t a moral, but not-playing-by-the-rules citizen, they’re psychotic, they’re someone who enjoys killing, no matter how they justify it.
     And then there’s the ending.  In the book after one final vigilante bout, one in which he kills three teens who’re throwing rocks and concrete chunks at passing trains, Paul is seen by a policeman.  The cop, however, literally turns the other way, and Paul, realizing the implication, makes his escape.  In the film the detective assigned to the case, Lt. Ochoa, is closing in and about to arrest Paul, when he’s stopped by the District Attorney.  The entire police department apparently knows who the vigilante is, but afraid of the PR backlash of arresting the hero vigilante (and afraid that crime will skyrocket again after Paul is off the streets), they simply order Paul to move to another city.  So we go from the book’s realistic scenario of an individual cop making the decision to let a vigilante go to the movie’s version of an incredibly unrealistic conspiracy involving the entire police and justice departments.
     (END SPOILERS)  Again, as with First Blood, I can understand why the studio made the changes they did.  They used a controversial topic (vigilantism) in a movie, but watered it down enough so that it would be acceptable to a wider audience.  Instead of the harsh grays of the book, there were the safe, blacks and whites of the film.  What could have been a disturbing, yet more thought-provoking and sophisticated thriller was changed to a slightly edgy, mundane popcorn action flick.  I’m not against simple action movies at all—I’ve enjoyed many, and will continue to do so in the future—but in this case they already had something more worthwhile, and chose to dumb it down.
     The movie Death Wish, despite my lukewarm feelings about it, was hugely successful at the box office, and while it had its critics, overall it was well regarded.  The inevitable sequels followed over the years, culminating in Death Wish V in 1994.  The sequels were hated by the critics, and the audiences began to dwindle, too.  Meanwhile, novel writer Brian Garfield flourished, writing the well respected Hopscotch (1975, made into a movie in 1980), the screenplay to 1987 horror gem The Stepfather, and even a non-fiction book that was a Pulitzer finalist for history, The Thousand-Mile War (1969), among others.  Partly due to his distaste for the film version, he wrote a sequel to Death Wish called Death Sentence (1975) which was basically completely ignored by the studio when they put out their movie sequel.  Much later, in 2007, a version was filmed that was only loosely based on the book sequel, but was liked by Garfield for keeping the correct vigilante tone. (I just learned about the book sequel, and am getting it for Christmas this year.)  Also, it should surprise no one that a movie remake of Death Wish has been announced.
     One final bit about the original movie.  It had some later famous, and unlikely cast members.  Christopher Guest, best known as a comedy actor/writer/director (The Princess Bride, Spinal Tap, Best in Show, The Mighty Wind) has a role as a cop, as does Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck, Steel Magnolias, Mighty Aphrodite).  Huge movie star (and double Oscar winner) Denzel Washington (Glory, Fallen, Training Day, Flight) makes his (uncredited) movie debut as a mugger.  Finally, Sonia Manzano, better known as Sesame Street’s “Maria” (who also was part of the show’s 15 Emmy-winning writing team), has an uncredited role as a grocery clerk.  Weird, huh?

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