Revenge movies have been a go-to for the film industry for a long time now. That’s probably because they’re simple in structure, don’t take all that much imagination to conceive, and are an easy way to get your audience to care about action scenarios. Introduce a main character, have him be wronged, then have him go after the people who wronged him. Boom—instant movie. They’re not prevalent just because they’re quick and easy though, they keep getting made because they really do affect us on a deep, animal level. There’s a boiling anger somewhere in us all, an urge to engage in cathartic, wrathful behavior, and the revenge trope allows us to indulge in that without having to take action ourselves; and it even offers up the added reassurance of providing a moral justification for the violence taking place.
These movies affect us so powerfully because of the way they’re able to delay gratification and then deliver satisfaction, as well. A good revenge movie is all about making the audience want to see a bad guy get his comeuppance, delaying the payback to the point where they believe they’re going to burst if they don’t get to see it, and then delivering the splatter right before the credits roll. It’s basically the same premise carnies have been using to sell professional wrestling matches for a century now. Today we’re going to explore what works and what doesn’t in the genre by comparing a movie that’s considered to be a famous entry in its canon, but doesn’t stand up as a revenge movie under scrutiny, 1974’s Death Wish, and a fairly new entry that didn’t get all that much attention, but does everything a revenge movie should perfectly, 2007’s Death Sentence.
What do they have in common?
The similarities between Death Wish and Death Sentence are so myriad that Death Sentence is widely considered to be at least an homage to its predecessor, and at most a soft remake. Death Wish stars Charles Bronson as a “bleeding heart liberal” who gets pushed into a life of committing vigilante justice after his wife is killed and his daughter is raped by a gang of vulgar street punks who force their way into his apartment. Marvel as the wrath in his heart slowly causes him to go from being a Ralph Nader type to eventually becoming a full-on Charlton Heston.
Death Sentence stars Kevin Bacon as an average dad who gets pushed over the edge when his star athlete son becomes collateral damage during a street gang’s robbery of a gas station. Instead of seeking justice in the traditional way, he decides to repay the murder in kind, and soon a back-and-forth game of vengeance is played out that not only puts the rest of his family in danger, but also threatens to irreparably corrupt his soul.
Why is Death Wish overrated?
The most obvious criticisms one might hurl at Death Wish are that it’s a bit cheesy and dated, its themes are hammered home with too much force, its dialogue is too on-the-nose and clunky, and a late-career Charles Bronson seems to sleepwalk through the movie with a stone face, resting on his reputation as a movie badass rather than doing any real work. All of that is true, but what we’re going to focus on here is why it doesn’t work as the revenge movie that it’s often referenced as being.
One of the most egregious ways in which it fails to be a revenge movie is that, in typical 70s fashion, it takes too many random asides and fails to maintain the momentum of its plot. Did we really need to get a 20 minute explanation as to how Bronson’s character got his first gun, in the form of that miserably boring business trip he takes? Those plans for the new housing development they go over—scintillating stuff—but what about all of those street punks that need killing? The second half of the film is never really clear about what it’s building to either. We just get isolated scenes of Bronson killing muggers while everyone else keeps repeating the phrases “the vigilante” and “crime rates” over and over. When is Bronson going to blow Jeff Goldblum’s head off? He made lewd tongue gestures at his daughter!
Which brings us to the most important reason Death Wish doesn’t deserve to show up on so many “Best Revenge Movie” lists—it’s not even a revenge movie. Bronson plays a man who’s pushed over the edge by tragedy and then lashes out at the criminal element, but his actions never have the focus that the best revenge movies do. He doesn’t even go after the particular guys who attacked his wife and daughter, he just gets a taste for brutally punishing the criminal element and then keeps indulging it. What he’s doing is closer to Breaking Bad than it is revenge. And, good lord, how ridiculous does it get that he somehow manages to get mugged by street goons every time he leaves the house?
Why is Death Sentence underpraised?
On a superficial level, one could argue that Death Sentence is an improvement over Death Wish because of its star. While Death Wish probably signified that a slightly over the hill Bronson was about ready to enter the twilight of his career, Death Sentence sees a still vital Kevin Bacon putting on an impressive acting clinic where he not only throws himself completely into the action and conveys all of its danger and intensity, but where he also develops his character to the point where he goes through a grizzly physical transformation and completely sells it. As his rage grows, his outer appearance morphs to become more and more monstrous. This is Bacon at his badass best.
The pacing of the film is brisk, and every scene we get works toward the goal of building to the moment where Bacon will confront the leader of the gang who killed his son. It only takes ten minutes for a huge splatter of blood to interrupt the peace and quiet of these characters’ normal lives, and then we’re off to the races. The series of action sequences that follow are all great too. The first scene where the gang comes after Bacon and a foot chase turns into a King of the Mountain battle in a parking garage is brutal and tense, and it stands up next to pretty much any other action sequences made in the last ten years. Death Wish doesn’t have any action scenarios that come anywhere close to being this entertaining.
Most importantly though, Death Sentence is a true revenge movie that spends most of its time exploring themes of revenge. Bacon’s kid gets killed, and instead of lashing out blindly, he targets the people who did it and plans revenge against them. And then, after he acts and kills one of their own, the gang starts to look for revenge against him in turn. Revenge is front and center in everyone’s minds. Death Sentence shows us the cost of seeking revenge, as well. Bacon’s rage ends up costing him things and ruining his life. Bronson’s slipping into vigilantism, comparatively, didn’t cost him anything. He doesn’t have anymore family left to alienate other than his dopey son-in-law, his career thrives after he becomes a murderer, and he’s even able to keep his rugged good looks all the way through to that famous last scene where he does the “pew-pew” gun symbol with his hand. The original is just a character study, while the update is a character study that also tells a story with some stakes.
Evening the odds.
Death Sentence may never be recognized as being an important entry in the revenge genre like Death Wish is, but it at least proved that James Wan is a capable director of action scenes. And seeing as he’s the guy who’s been tapped as the director of the seventh Fast & Furious movie, we can all take comfort in that. While Justin Lin’s Fast & Furious movies have generally been successful and well-liked, they all suffer from taking the action to such cartoonish places that the goings-on lose their gravity and become ridiculous. Wan’s violence is able to ride the edge of being over the top and ludicrous while still being plausible enough to keep you engaged. It’s kind of like professional wrestling—you can get as showy and choreographed as you want with the violence just as long as you leave that little bit of doubt in the back of your audience’s mind that some of what they’re watching might be for real. Wan’s Fast & Furious 7 should be a lot of fun, and hopefully it will feature Kevin Bacon.