Face-Off: Death Wish vs. Death Sentence

The remake of Michael Winner's 1974 vigilante film DEATH WISH is set to reach theatres this Friday, and while we wait to see how successful director Eli Roth and star Bruce Willis are with this attempt to revive the DEATH WISH franchise, I have been watching the original films once again. DEATH WISH began as a novel written by Brian Garfield, and even though Charles Bronson starred in five DEATH WISH films, none of the sequels were based on the sequel novel Garfield wrote, titled DEATH SENTENCE. An adaptation of DEATH SENTENCE, which dropped the DEATH WISH connection, wasn't made until 2007, directed by James Wan. Since this is the week of DEATH WISH, it's the perfect time to put the two Garfield adaptations up against each other and see which one is the better vigilante tale.
Charles Bronson plays architect Paul Kersey, a loving husband and father who's described as a "bleeding heart liberal" early in the film and was a conscientious objector when he served in the military. His life is torn apart when his wife and daughter are brutally assaulted. His wife doesn't survive the attack, and his daughter is left with severe psychological trauma. Overwhelmed by the amount of crime around him in New York, Paul decides to strike back, using the gunslinger skills he learned during a business trip to Arizona to shoot down any threatening criminal that crosses his path. His first acts of violence leave him shaking and vomiting, but soon enough he's a cold-blooded killer. This seems like a very real portrayal of a deadly vigilante.
Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) is an average guy with a nice family, an office job, and a large house in the suburbs. He seems to have it all, with the only bad part of his day being that he has to work too late and his teen sons bicker with each other too much. But when one of his sons is killed in a random act of violence, Nick dives right into vigilantism when he thinks the justice system is going to let the killer off too lightly. Over the course of the film, as things around him get worse and worse, Nick goes from wearing suits and fumbling his way through action scenes to becoming a one man army who can handle himself against an entire gang. On a personal level, I never really like Nick all that much, but the guy certainly does find a warrior within himself.
Paul's actions make him a criminal himself, and the detective on the case is Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia). Ochoa quickly figures out that the vigilante is someone getting revenge for a homicide and orders a search through the records, which he's soon able to narrow down. By the end, he is personally confronting Paul. He's a good cop, imagine if he had been looking for the people who attacked Paul's family instead.
Aisha Tyler's Detective Wallis tries to help Nick when he's relying on the justice system, and when he opts instead to take matters into his own hands it doesn't take her long to figure out what he's doing. She tries to bring an end to the violence, but she's never effective at stopping either Nick or the gang he's at war with. She gives warnings and speeches, then bungles the situation left and right.
There is a trio of criminals who get more screen time than any other, and those are the three who attack Paul's wife and daughter. One's a dimwit who likes to spraypaint everything in sight, another is the scumbag who turns the situation into a sexual assault on Paul's daughter, and the third is a foul-mouthed, cheesin' Jeff Goldblum. The way these three behave, the things they do, it makes the viewer anxious to see a comeuppance they don't get. They're never seen again. The criminals Paul encounters through the rest of the film are just random street criminals, muggers, who show up to get killed.
Nick has a vendetta against one very specific group of criminals: a gang led by Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund), a walking ball of rage. To get into the gang, you have to kill someone, and Nick's son is in the wrong place at the wrong time when Billy's brother Joe (Matt O'Leary) needs an initiation victim. Joe is a cocky bastard, and thankfully the film doesn't make you wait long before he gets his comeuppance. The gang doesn't make much of an impression; the best criminal character is daddy Darley, an arms dealer called Bones (John Goodman), who cares more about paying customers than his offspring.
Paul's first violent act is done in self defense - when a criminal attempts to rob him, he wallops the guy with a sock full of quarters. Later Paul acquires a gun and sets out to do his part in lowering the crime rate in the city. He does this by daring criminals to approach him - gun concealed, he goes out wandering the streets and subway after dark, presenting himself as a vulnerable target. As soon as a criminal takes the bait and makes a move on him, Paul quick-draws his gun and shoots them down. This isn't a film of big action sequences or elaborate shootouts, the violence happens very fast and Paul benefits from the fact that his attackers tend to be armed with blades rather than guns.
After his son is killed, Nick tracks down the murderer and starts beating on the little creep. He took a knife with him, and when the knife ends up buried in the killer's stomach during the scuffle, vengeance is served. Unfortunately, the violence continues, with gang members invading Nick's home and shooting him and his remaining family members. So he retaliates by spending his life savings on guns, proceeding to execute the rest of the gang, whittling their numbers down to zero. The shootout is exciting, but the best action moment is when Nick and a gang member fight in a car that rolls off the top of a parking garage. A scenario James Wan remade on a bigger scale in FURIOUS 7.
It goes along with DEATH WISH's realistic approach that Paul never has the opportunity to punish the criminals who destroyed his family. In a city of millions, what are the chances that he would find the three exact guys responsible, when no one has any leads on them? But that's also an unsatisfying aspect of the film, as the viewer really wants to see those guys pay, and to see Paul get his revenge. The criminals Paul kills are dangerous, but there's an emptiness to seeing him take out random after random.
There is some "eye for an eye" poetry at work in DEATH SENTENCE, as the punishments Nick doles out tend to reflect the crimes committed against him and his family. Nick's son is killed with a machete, he kills the murderer with a knife. Armed intruders raid his home, he arms himself and raids their base of operations. It's kind of satisfying to see that back-and-forth play out, and it's also satisfying that when Nick sets out to do something, he accomplishes that specific task. Even if he has to pay a terrible price for it.
As I put this Face-Off together, I found there were four categories where there were decisive victories, and one where the result was up in the air. This fight really came down to the Criminals category - whereas DEATH WISH has a bunch of random criminals, DEATH SENTENCE has a specific group where the most intriguing ones are overshadowed by a gang that I didn't find very interesting. As despicable as Joe Darley is and as great as John Goodman is, none of the criminals in DEATH SENTENCE get to me the way the criminals who attack Paul Kersey's wife and daughter in DEATH WISH do. They're only around for one sequence, but they're more memorable than the DEATH SENTENCE gang manages to be over the course of a whole movie. So the category went to DEATH WISH, and so did the Face-Off victory.

Really, how much of a chance can you hope to stand against a '70s classic directed by a guy named Winner?

Do you agree with the outcome of this Face-Off, or do you prefer DEATH SENTENCE over the original DEATH WISH? What is your favorite DEATH WISH movie? Share your thoughts on these films by leaving a comment below. If you'd like to send in suggestions for future articles, you can email me at [email protected].



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