The Catholic News Service offers some great help when deciding on a movie to watch. It essentially rates movies according to how well they adhere to decency and morality. I admit that I’m more likely to follow their recommendations when it comes to crassness and sex than violence. For example, I noted that they rated London has Fallen an O for “Morally Offensive,” but decided to watch it anyway.
In the case of Death Wish, I was surprised to find that not only was the remake rated O, but so were the original five movies starring Charles Bronson. This surprised me about as much as finding out that The Outlaw Josey Wales was rated O. In doing a little digging, I discovered that revenge and vigilantism sufficed to earn a film an O rating. Yet, the Death Wish remake does not glorify revenge and casts plenty of doubt on the righteousness of vigilantism.
The important thing to remember about revenge and vigilantism is that a thin line separates the two from justice: intention and means in the case of the first and the existence of a competent authority in the case of the second. Revenge differs from justice in having bias, tends to exceed the bounds of just punishment, and concerns itself more with emotional satisfaction than satisfying the law. Whether vigilantism is a sin or not depends on whether a competent authority exists to punish criminals. If no competent authority exists, society is essentially in a state of nature and just war theory applies.
In Willis’ Death Wish, our hero is certainly motivated by his emotions and is outraged by the inability of the police to find the perpetrators. The authority here, the Chicago Police Department, is at lease semi-competent, i.e. well-trained and concerned with justice but overwhelmed by the volume of crime. Still, the movie gives one the impression that the police would have found the people who invaded Willis’ home, harmed his daughter, and murdered his wife if they had access to the same information Willis discovered and had more time. This is one of the ways in which the movie casts doubt on the righteousness of our hero.
The remake is far less sanguine on the topic of vigilante justice than the original movie. The overarching truth of the movie is put by our hero’s father-in-law: a man needs to protect what is his own and it’s already too late when the police arrive. It is too late for people lost through inadequate preparation, and revenge can’t change that. The constant debate over vigilante justice, the opinion of the police in that such things will cause a state of chaos, and the death of a copycat all cast doubt on vigilante justice. In turn, this blackens our hero’s quest for revenge. The movie is a great reminder for people in authority, however, that, where the authority is deemed incompetent to maintain justice, people will begin to take justice into their own hands.
The original Death Wish might be termed nihilistic in its despair of the justice system. (Neither the police nor Charles Bronson ever catch up to the people who ruined his family.) The remake is far more hopeful in this regard. Though we sympathize with Willis, the movie leaves us inclined to believe that going over the heads of lawful authority is dangerous and wrong. Perhaps the original is an O for nihilism. (The 1970’s itself was a nihilistic decade.) But, the Bruce Willis movie deserves an L far more than an O: some traditions–like calling all Death Wish movies morally offensive–deserve to be broken.
By the way, the reviewer also called the movie racist “like the original.” Neither one appeared racist to me, and there is far less reason to call Willis’ film racist. We all know that gangs cause violence in Chicago and that gangs always eschew diversity. It is criminals who are racist and stick to their own kind! Willis takes his brand of justice to people of at least three races. One wonders whether the reviewer is upset that Bruce Willis guns down no Asians or American Indians over the course of the movie? People should think a little more before throwing around the word racist.