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Even Brian Garfield, the author of the 1972 novel that soon became the Charles Bronson-starring Death Wish, has gone on record as stating that Death Sentence, the 2007 (loose) adaptation of his own Death Wish sequel, more effectively captured the themes present in his tales of vigilante justice than any of the Death Wish films managed to. And after seeing Eli Roth’s remake of Michael Winner’s 1974 original, released into theaters this weekend, we’ve got a strong feeling Garfield’s stance won’t be changing.
Bruce Willis, as he’s apt to do, sleepwalks through Death Wish, a tone-deaf remake that sure doesn’t denounce vigilante justice as a viable means of protecting one’s family and/or one’s city. In fact, it likens street justice to a form of therapy, essentially relieving Willis’ Paul Kersey of the emptiness he feels in the wake of his wife’s murder. Mind you, the original Death Wish had a similarly pro-vigilante slant, but Roth’s remake – especially given the poor timing of its release – is particularly problematic in that regard.
AC/DC’s “Back in Black” plays loudly over a scene wherein Kersey cleans and assembles his first gun, making it clear that the film’s stance is that vigilante justice is pretty cool; around the same point in the original, for the sake of comparison, Bronson’s Kersey is vomiting into a toilet in the wake of pumping a bullet into a criminal for the first time.
James Wan’s Death Sentence takes the denouncement of vigilante justice one step further, firmly establishing that Kevin Bacon’s Nick Hume is very much not a man just waiting to spring into action as a pistol-packing hero, but rather an ordinary father/husband who by all means should’ve gone his entire life without so much as even touching a gun. But when Hume’s oldest son is taken from him in a brutal gang initiation at a gas station, he makes a decision that it’s immediately clear he’ll never be coming back from. Hume kills his son’s murderer with a knife to the stomach, plunging himself headlong into a terrifying world he has no business being in. The price he pays, well, it’s severe and ultimate.
What sets Death Sentence apart from most man-becomes-vigilante films is that Hume, unlike either version of Kersey that we’ve seen on the big screen, isn’t instantly transformed into a vigilante badass in the wake of his son’s murder. In fact, much of the film actually centers on the gang’s revenge on Hume for what he’s done to their friend, rather than the other way around. Hume’s ill-conceived plan was only to kill his son’s murderer, but doing so puts him firmly in the cross-hairs of the gang the young man belonged to. This quickly leads to the film’s most intense sequence, wherein Hume is chased to and around a parking garage that becomes the setting of his second murder.
With the gang now determined to wipe Hume out of existence for what he’s done, they eventually end up breaking into his home, wherein the film starts to feel much more familiar to fans of the Charles Bronson Death Wish movies. The gang, led by Garrett Hedlund’s Billy Darley, unknowingly turns Nick Hume into their worst nightmare, killing his wife and putting his young son into a coma. In the final act, Hume, with a crudely-shaved head so you know he means business, goes on a guns-blazing rampage. He’s got nothing left to lose, and he takes the fight straight to the Darley gang’s door, unloading various different firearms until he’s pretty sure there’s not a pulse left in the place.
This brutal, barbaric act of revenge doesn’t bring Hume any real peace, nor does he get to continue his life in the wake of it. Instead, Hume ends up seated on a couch right next to Darley, bleeding to death alongside one another. The line between murderer and vigilante hero has completely vanished, echoed by Billy’s final line to Nick.
“Look at you. You look like one of us. Look what I made you.”
Pale as a ghost, blood pouring from a bullet wound in his neck, and his head literally stapled together, Nick Hume has become a completely different person than he was when the film started. A once-happy family man with a good job has been turned into an unrecognizable killing machine; not by the actions of the men who took his son from him, but more by his own decision to exact revenge on them. That thirst for blood got Hume’s wife killed, and it also ultimately leads to his own death in the film’s heartbreaking final moments.
Compare this to the final moments of both versions of Death Wish, wherein Paul Kersey coolly continues his life of crime unscathed, and you see why Brian Garfield called James Wan’s first foray outside the horror genre, “a stunningly good movie,” adding that it effectively depicts the loss of Nick’s humanity and “the stupidity of vengeful vigilantism.”
Wan’s Death Sentence, no doubt in large part thanks to a well-cast Kevin Bacon’s performance (not to mention John Goodman in a fun supporting role as an underground arms dealer), is packed with genuine emotion; it’s a film that doesn’t shy away from exploitation-style violence but one that also makes sure to never lose sight of its lead character’s humanity – both his initial struggle to retain it, and his eventual self-destruction of every last shred of it. Nick Hume is not the hero of this story. His is the tragic tale of a man who makes one wrong move and is never able to return from it. Contrary to the character he’s based on, he’s the poster child for vigilante justice being a really, really bad idea.
In hindsight, Death Sentence was the only Death Wish remake we needed.