The 1974 Charles Bronson thriller Death Wish was both wildly influential and horrifyingly reactionary. It told the story of a New York City architect and self-proclaimed “bleeding-heart liberal” whose wife is killed and daughter is assaulted in a home invasion by a trio of thugs (including Jeff Goldblum, weirdly), but the NYPD proves utterly incapable of finding the perpetrators. So he takes to the streets himself, plucking off muggers and various criminal types, to the consternation but eventual shrugging forgiveness of the cops.
A huge commercial success, Death Wish kicked off a whole cycle of NYC revenge-sploitation movies, as well as several sequels, each more garish and cartoonish than the last. These films struggled mightily to quash the inherently racist overtones of such stories, in which the good white man and his pure white wife are the victims of bad brown people, whom he then targets with abandon; usually, they tried to compensate by creating carefully multi-ethnic gangs, instead of just owning up to their boogeyman tendencies.
And you can see some of that happening in the new Death Wish remake, which is, yes, again the story of a kind white man (Bruce Willis) turned pistol-packing action hero after the murder of his sweet white wife (Elisabeth Shue) – but look, see, they score it with rap music, and you see him helping some black people, so hey it’s not racist! But they’ve also changed the location, from the now Disney-fied NYC to the Trump Right’s favorite code-word for black urban mayhem, Chicago, a move that’s less a dog whistle than an air horn:
I’m having a hard time choosing the most ridiculous element of this trailer, but I’ve got it narrowed down to three:
1) The way the detective investigating the murder has a big bulletin board on his office wall, full of flyers and photos, helpfully labeled (in big, Sharpie lettering) “UNSOLVED CASES.” As any cop worth their salt will tell you, it’s good to put a few of those up around the office, just to put visitors at ease.
2) The fact that Dean Norris and Bruce Willis are in a movie together and it’s somehow not about long-estranged brothers putting aside their differences to save mom’s house.
3) How “everyone’s watching this viral video” of Willis’s heroics – when in fact, there are never viral videos of the so-called “good guys with guns” saving the day. Because that doesn’t happen. You know what we get viral videos of? Unarmed black people getting gunned down!
And that particular intersection of fact and fiction is what makes a Death Wish remake so troubling at this particular moment. It’s a right-wing fantasy of taking the law into one’s own hands; the trailer even includes Vincent D’onofrio imploring Willis, “You’re not a cop,” to which he responds, “Somebody has to do it,” which, sorry, is some straight-up George Zimmerman shit.
But hey, the screenplay adaptation is by Joe Carnahan, who did The Grey and Narc, so maybe there’s some real steak to this one, and the trailer is just selling the sizzle? Oh, wait. It’s directed by Eli Roth, the guy behind…. The Green Inferno. Never mind.
Death Wish is out March 2.