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'Death Wish' remake unloaded at a bad time for Hollywood

Hollywood will honor its best and brightest March 4, with the added pomp of this being the ...

Posted: Mar. 2, 2018 12:02 PM
Updated: Mar. 2, 2018 12:02 PM

Hollywood will honor its best and brightest March 4, with the added pomp of this being the 90th Academy Awards. Yet whatever claims to the moral high ground industry figures might like to make aren't helped by this weekend's release of "Death Wish," a remake of the 1974 revenge fantasy, right before its biggest night.

In response to another horrific school shooting, many show-business liberals have joined the chorus for gun control. But the industry can be put on the defensive when it releases this sort of high-profile exploitation fare, which critics have pilloried, giving the movie a dismal 15% approval rating on the movie-review site Rottentomatoes.

Even under the best of circumstances, the new film, starring Bruce Willis and directed by horror maven Eli Roth, would be a subject of controversy.

The mere trailer triggered blowback in August, with Joshua Rivera writing in GQ, "It takes a profound level of either ignorance or craven, willful opportunism to think that this is a moment to make a film about a white man's rage channeled through the barrel of a gun." Collider's Matt Goldberg added that the movie "feels particularly icky considering our politics and cultural environment."

As it would happen, "Death Wish" -- a story in which a man responds to his wife's murder by becoming a gun-wielding vigilante -- makes its debut during a moment in which the gun-control debate is again being renewed. (MGM, which is distributing the film, actually delayed its scheduled opening from November until now.)

Not unexpectedly, the National Rifle Assn. and like-minded politicians -- including President Trump -- have sought to deflect blame regarding gun violence elsewhere, citing violent movies and videogames.

The role of movies and TV in this debate has always been a complicated one. The accusations range from glorifying violence and guns to numbing heavy consumers of such material to real-life events. Special concern has applied to its influence on impressionable youths.

Those arguments have lost some of their currency in recent years, in part because entertainment has become such a global business. As many have noted, countries with significantly lower rates of gun deaths consume much of the same material as the U.S., suggesting the problem lies not with what people watch, but the weapons to which they have access.

Even so, Hollywood is clearly sensitive about such criticism of its content, at a moment when the volume of edgy fare is exploding thanks to a proliferation of premium outlets with more permissive standards.

Paramount Network announced this week that it would postpone a new TV series version of the movie "Heathers," scheduled for March 7, citing the mass shooting in Florida. The network attributed the delay to "respect for the victims, their families and loved ones."

Marvel and Netflix took similar action in October, withdrawing a planned New York Comic-Con premiere of "The Punisher" -- also about a gun-toting vigilante -- after the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

As critics have noted, the original "Death Wish" was released at a different time, during what's been described as "the golden age of vigilante movies," along with 1970s titles like "Taxi Driver" and the "Dirty Harry" series.

In a modern era where TV and movie executives can't seem to get enough of revivals, remakes and reboots -- thanks primarily to the name recognition they possess -- it's hardly a surprise that "Death Wish" would return, joining a parade of 1970s, '80s and '90s artifacts receiving new life.

Dredging up such titles, however, occasionally brings with it another form of baggage. And while Hollywood might be a convenient target for politicians in the latest debate over gun violence, with movies like "Death Wish," the industry continues to provide its critics plenty of ammunition.

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