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The 'Death Wish' remake lands with a thud in the 'Chi-ploitation' genre

Chicago Tribune

On my way to the screening of the remake of “Death Wish” my phone bleeped and a notification told me that Walmart had decided not to sell firearms to anyone under the age of 21. Earlier that day, my phone had bleeped and a small window told me that Dick’s Sporting Goods, another leading retailer of guns in the nation, would no longer sell firearms to anyone under 21 — plus, it would no longer sell assault-style rifles at all. Earlier in the week, my phone bleeped, and bleeped again, and again, as motel chains, airlines and insurance companies severed relations with the National Rifle Association.

The new “Death Wish,” which was made by MGM (the 1974 original was released by Paramount), tells the story of how a man from Evanston goes into a gun store and buys an arsenal to avenge the death of his wife and the shooting of his daughter in their beautiful Colonial-style home. This man, a surgeon played by Bruce Willis, asks if there will be a lengthy background check, and a young woman behind the counter — spilling out of her tank top, leering at the 62-year-old actor as if it hasn’t been 33 years since “Moonlighting” debuted — explains it takes no time and frankly, wink, everyone passes, of course.

Is this why they call it a revenge fantasy?

Or is that reality?

Later, as the bullets fly and the American carnage climbs, there is only one man brave enough to run toward the danger, into the building with the active shooter, only one man who can shoot first and ask questions later (or at all) — there is only one man sharp enough to clean up the volcanic Mordor of Chicago 2018. But is it weird that this person is being played by Bruce Willis? How many assumed I was referring to Donald Trump?

To be honest, I don’t know anymore.

Is it possible to soundtrack an entire movie with cultural dog whistles? To gaslight a city? To say life in 2018 is surreal is stale and obvious. But this new “Death Wish,” which gets on at State and Lake and transfers at Stale and Obvious, is something special: It feels like a summation of how the world regards Chicago, how others come to Chicago and, in keeping with a century of pop culture about Chicago as a backwater metropolis ruled by Al Capone and Molly Ringwald, are OK with making Chicago a fixer-upper.

It’s Chicago the Abstraction: The Movie.

Decoding the racial schematics alone would require a lifetime. But watching it in Chicago is to sense an entire culture talking about you behind your back. Willis and Co. eat deep dish, attend soccer matches on the North Shore, get news reports of Lollapalooza ripping up Grant Park (“Again”). They read Milton Friedman! The police say — out loud, without irony, in situations where other humans can hear them — “We’re not arresting a surgeon without ironclad proof!” Willis takes the Red Line into the poorest neighborhoods, mixes it up with the locals, of all races and ethnicities, the kind who valet his BMW — I’m not being facetious — then returns to Evanston, exhilarated.

Sure, it’s a dumb movie, but those come every week — “You’re the crew that stole all the stuff in my house,” Willis shouts at his attackers, “and you killed my wife!” Here is a staggering bit of Chi-ploitation without regard for a city where real people live — which is perhaps why the film feels of a piece with the White House’s renderings of Chicago. It opens, no kidding, with a Chicago police officer being shot and murdered in the Loop. It has a Greek chorus of talk radio personalities providing glib lip service to “the debate” about Chicago. It is centered on revenge shootings, but unlike, say, Showtime’s “The Chi,” which also goes there, it tells us revenge is cathartic and necessary — even fun.

Of course, culture gets oversimplified.

“The Chi” can be just as frustratingly easy, moving personalities and races and professions around a cultural chessboard, as if simply offering different perspectives and backgrounds is the same thing as cultural nuance itself. But the vision of Chicago in “Death Wish” is much stupider, a place without very much hope, and basically three parts: bombed-out sections, North Shore colonials and the section of Chicago that abuts Trump Tower, gleaming and dark and unknowable. It is the vision of Chicago that Trump has hammered for years — which is actually the New York of old exploitation flicks such as, well, the old “Death Wish” with Charles Bronson. Willis hears a black voice and immediately assumes a crime is being committed (in this case, it is); Latinos leer at him; homeless people plaster themselves to the side of his BMW, begging for entitlements. It is Trump’s Chicago, minus gangs wearing suede fringe vests without T-shirts underneath.

Does it really matter?

Yes. Playing defense is what Chicago does — rocking forward on its heels, fists up, even as the rest of the nation goes about its business, uninterested. It’s Chicago’s fate and pathology. But as silly as it is for a city to keep reminding itself of its “world class” status, “Death Wish” plays like a reminder of why that affirmation matters. It is the kind of positive affirmation the president himself seems to crave. Never mind that in this new “Death Wish,” people dream of leaving Chicago and escaping to New York — things change, the fate of cities change. In the original Bronson looked like a driving instructor whose house was egged. In this one, Willis speaks so slowly and with so little emotion — for family, police, valets, criminals, etc. — he is more of an American Psycho than a savior.

He’s not all of us, he’s just him.

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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