Sunday, March 23, 2014

Joe Carnahan's "Death Wish"

I am writing to you in a small hotel room in London. I have just finished reading a draft (dated 9.9.12) of Joe Carnahan's now-nixed remake of "Death Wish". When it was first announced in January of 2012 that Carnahan was doing a new adaptation of John Garfield's 1972 novel, I was genuinely excited. Carnahan is one of those man's man directors, macho, not in a jerky way, but rather in the classic Robert Aldrich mold, adept at capturing a certain loneliness, a certain haunted quality in men caught up in violent and desperate situations. (He has always seemed, to me, to be on the verge of remaking "Hell in the Pacific".) In "The Grey", Liam Neeson, externally, is fighting wolves and the elements, but, underneath it all, he's fighting the grief that comes with the loss of a loved one.

In Garfield's novel, CPA Paul Benjamin is living in NYC, when muggers rape his wife and daughter, the attack leaving his wife dead and his daughter in a coma. Benjamin is at first paralyzed by grief, but then is driven to a mad state where stalks the street of New York at night, shooting muggers and other criminals. The men who attacked his family are never found.

In his screenplay, Carnahan uses the name "Paul Kersey", the same name used in the 1974 Michael Winner adaptation with Charles Bronson, the one that spawned four sequels. Carnahan sets his version in LA in present day. A present day setting eliminates the problematic, dated racial paranoia that comes with portraying a white vigilante in 1970s New York. But how do you make make's Paul's fear of being trapped in a crime-ridden hellhole real when you set the story in a sprawl like L.A.? Carnahan solves this by using first person perspective after the attack in his descriptions of Paul, which succeeds both in making L.A. claustrophobic, and the story more intimate. We are complicit in Paul's pain and his deeds. Carnahan makes it possible for Paul to find his wife and daughter's attackers, which provides a clear cinematic through-line, while the ending, like that of the novel, suggests his mission will extend beyond those responsible.

I have never seen the Charles Bronson film, but, from what I hear, it makes Paul into something of an action hero. Indeed, the moment you cast a badass like Charles Bronson, it kills the transformation aspect of the story. Which is, apparently, why Carnahan bailed on the project when Paramount-MGM pushed for Bruce Willis to play the lead. Now John McClane is arguably the greatest cinema action hero of all time. Willis gave the role an iconic everyman quality that separated him from Stallone's and Arnold's unstoppable supermen of the mid-1980s (Rambo in the original "First Blood" is a completely different story). But now it's no longer a surprise when Bruce kicks someone's ass-we expect him to. He is miles away from the shock of the funny guy from "Moonlighting" crawling through air ducts and gunning down terrorists.

When Sidney Lumet originally conceived of a film version of the novel (before leaving to do "Serpico"), he had Jack Lemmon in mind as Paul Kersey. Imagine the shock of watching Ensign Pulver descending into madness and gunning down hoods. Anyway, Bronson took over and the rest is history. Liam Neeson would have been a great choice ten years ago. But now he's "Taken". In any case, it's a crying shame this project was canceled, because Carnahan understands that "Death Wish" is not a story about a man fighting the men who took his family - it's the story of a man fighting with himself.

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