Reviews: Death Wish

An intelligent action drama, still topical in 2015

1974's Death Wish is the story of a family man who tries to reclaim his city from the violent criminals who took away his life. I found it to be a very intelligent action film, because of its main question: if the authorities are incapable of (or refuse to) keep people safe, when should citizens step in to protect their own safety? And when is the use of force appropriate to deter crime? The media in the background constantly debate this question, as does Paul himself.

I suppose that it's somewhat of a misnomer to call this an "action film." Even as "the vigilante," in the daytime Paul still had to live his life normally, and this contrast is a huge part of the film. Action scenes are relatively few and not elaborate, and many have a distinct lack of catharsis, but the feeling of confronting knife-wielding criminals with guns is probably supposed to have this effect. I like its stripped-down feel.

I definitely liked the fact that, as an older man not used to killing, Paul was a different kind of hero. The conflict within him about killing and him slowly becoming more and more okay with it is a very interesting character dynamic. Even many later action films don't examine this question of morality.

That said, I felt that the film was flawed in one way: that it didn't examine the perspective of the criminals very deeply, and that they all were depicted is as cackling villains. I believe that another tension in the film was whether talking heads talking mattered day-to-day to the people who were being affected by crime, rather than something to be worried about in the long term, but the question of "why" would have added even more depth to the film, especially the "why" of property and drug crime. Such a depiction was probably fairly uncommon until far later works such as The Wire, though, so I'm willing to cut the film a bit of slack.

All that said, the film's vision felt fully realized. Also, watching in 2015 with Black Lives Matter in the news, I felt that the central question of this movie matters as much now as it did 40 years ago. If you like '70s crime flicks, but also want to think a bit, watch this movie.