As Chapo Trap House co-host Felix Biederman quipped in an interview last summer, Donald Trump's antiquated vision of Chicago is straight from urban vigilante movies of the early 70s—the Dirty Harry and Death Wish filmsof the world, in which the streets are ruled by criminals ("all gangs in leather vests and shit," as Biederman put it) while bourgeois white people live in fear.
So it's fitting—and appalling—that a Death Wish remake coming out in March looks so much like a cinematic fantasy straight out of Trump's porous brain. Director Eli Roth has relocated this revenge fantasy from Manhattan to Chicago, mirroring Trump's obsession with violent crime here. Meanwhile, protagonist Paul Kersey—originally played with stone-faced fury by Charles Bronson—is now represented by real-life conservative Bruce Willis.
Today MGM released a new trailer for Death Wish, in which Willis fires automatic rifles and crushes the bodies of criminal suspects with falling cars to enact bloody (and stylish) vengeance for his murdered wife and traumatized daughter. By the end I half expected to hear clips from Trump's "American carnage" inaugural address lead into a red-state-baiting tagline for the movie: "On March 2 . . . Bruce Willis makes America great again."
While it's true that the trailer hints at some moral nuance—"How far is too far for justice?"—it then leads with statistics that read as an NRA-sponsored defense for Dr. Kersey's murder spree, ominously claiming that out of 125 million families in the U.S, "1 in 4 will become victims of a crime." Cut to armed masked men attacking Kersey's wife and daughter from inside their idyllic suburban home. Then onscreen text: "What if your family was next"
The lack of punctuation seems intentional, as if the moviemakers aren't posing a question so much as informing the audience of a frightening inevitability.
This Death Wish also looks as if it's coding its racial politics in a way that Trump rarely bothers to do. In the original films, part of the "avenging angel" genre, the type of renegade cop played by Bronson or Clint Eastwood often executed black and brown criminals on behalf of law-abiding white citizens. The 2018 version seems to prefer dog whistles: in the trailer, Kersey is seen gunning down only white thugs. But once you consider Kersey is from a tony Chicago suburb and that he heads down to the crime-ridden city to locate his perps (the movie was at least partially filmed in Latino-majority neighborhoods such as Pilsen), it's impossible to remove race from the subtext. Also, it's telling that Bronson's Kersey was an architect who at least lived in Manhattan proper while Willis's version is a doctor who lives outside the city limits.
Ultimately, the Chicago of Death Wish appears to be a Trump-era prop being exploitedfor cheap thrills, similar to the way the original movie used New York's real violence problem during the equally reactionary Nixon era. The notion of a Chicago gang targeting a suburban McMansion seems absurd. But the plot point serves what's apparently little more than vigilante porn, red meat for suburban dads in MAGA hats who fantasize about being the NRA's mythical "good guy with a gun," though they're almost never in true danger themselves.