TAD review: The Demolisher delivers a lo-fi Death Wish

The Demolisher. It’s the kind of title that would make Don Pendleton or Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir proud. Like their Executioner and Destroyer novels, it evokes testosterone-fuelled pulp excess: whoever the Demolisher is you can be sure he’ll whip the blindfold off ol’ Lady Justice and inflict maximum damage in the name of righteous vengeance. But The Demolisher, which played Toronto After Dark on Sunday night, both is and is not the movie its title suggests.

 

Sure, it’s about a riot gear-clad vigilante stalking and beating the people he holds responsible for putting his wife in a wheelchair. The stuff of many a B-movie. But it’s a lo-fi yet ambitious movie about the self-immolation that results from fanning the flames of rage, not an action movie that uses revenge as an excuse for staging cool fistfights and shootouts. If anything, The Demolisher is an arthouse action film that has more in common with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive or Only God Forgives than it does anything Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus ever produced.

Now, the idea of the vigilante has palpable appeal given how powerless we often feel in our daily lives, whether because people are literally getting away with murder or someone cut us off in the parking lot. It’s such a seductive fantasy: we all get a little turned on, a little buzzed, by the thought of getting some payback, a little Old Testament eye-for-an-eye revenge. Ah, revenge. Sweet, sweet revenge. Where would the movies be without it?

Cinema vigilantes have been around since DW Griffith’s A Misunderstood Boy in 1913, although the vigilante was not the protagonist of that particular story. In fact, vigilantism is the quintessential dramatic device, particularly in American cinema, where it’s inextricably linked with Hollywood’s only truly original genre, the western, and its relentless posse of shoot first and hang ’em high gunslingers. As the popularity of the western declined, the dust and tumbleweeds cleared and the vigilante movie became more distinct—and more like what we now imagine it to be, which is exactly like Charles Bronson using a very big gun to kill muggers and rapists and sundry scum and villainy.

 

The vigilante we imagine—and sometimes imagine ourselves being—solidified on the big screen with Death Wish and Dirty Harry, which spawned ever-more-ridiculous sequels well into the next decade, as well as Taxi Driver and innumerable exploitation classics like Shaft, Billy Jack and Walking Tall. They emerged from the grim and grimy ’70s, a toxic period in America when people wanted to feel safe and protected in the face of seemingly insurmountable uncertainty and distrust: the Vietnam War, civil rights protests, Watergate, the oil crisis, inflation, rising crime rates, disco. The heroes of these movies might not have solved society’s ills, but they embraced the gunfighter’s moral clarity and took decisive action, and we embraced them for it.

In the last few years, vigilantes (of the non-Batman variety) have hit the big screen with a, uh, vengeance: The Equalizer, The Brave One and Death Sentence, which was (very) loosely based on the sequel to the original Death Wish novel by author Brian Garfield. And if you look out your window you’ll see that while the grit and grime of the ’70s has been bulldozed and replaced by condos, America (and to a degree, Canada) is again feeling unsafe and distrustful, spurred by politicians and the media. The environment and economy are in crisis, our politics are not just dividing us but turning us against each other, there are civil rights protests, police brutality, our privacy has been invaded and we are under constant surveillance (shades of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation). Most glaringly, after 9/11, vengeance was on a lot of people’s minds: the Iraq war was launched by a cowboy president from Texas and his posse of F-18s and Navy Seals as an act of vigilante justice. Fundamentally, both the ’70s and the present share an anxiety about the government’s ability—and its willingness—to keep us safe, and the cost of doing so.

From the Lone Ranger to Batman, Paul Kersey to Travis Bickle, Hollywood has conventionally—and quite conveniently—portrayed vigilantism as something heroic and noble, a righteous crusade to right the wrongs an incapable and inadequate criminal justice system simply cannot or will not. Bronson’s Kersey is a likeable, mild-mannered and liberal-minded architect driven to violence by the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter. He quite consciously sets out not only to avenge them, but to fix a broken system and by extension fix America. Rarely does moral greyness creep into the narrative, which is understandable given our appetite for heroes and our own primal instinct toward revenge: whether it’s killing murderers and rapists or punching out the schoolyard bully or merely flipping the finger at the cab driver who cuts us off in traffic, we all relish the moment when people get what’s coming to them. It’s human nature.

Striding out of this emotional conflagration is The Demolisher, by writer-director Gabriel Carrer. Of course, Carrer’s intentions are not so high-minded that he’s trying to reflect the current ills of society. He’s not trying to say anything quite so deep or meaningful or prophetic. His riot-geared vigilante swinging his baton into a punk in a hoody might evoke recent news video of police brutality (the violent crackdown on g20 protesters in Toronto just a few years ago, for example), but I don’t believe that was Carrer’s intention. He’s just flipping the script on the typical Hollywood vigilante to refreshing effect.

Bruce (Ry Barrett) is an Internet repairman, presumably mild-mannered and liberal-minded, although we’re never given an opportunity to know him before he puts on the black riot gear and patrols the streets of Toronto looking for scumbags (or as they’re called in the film’s credits, “scum runners”). All we really know is that his wife (Tianna Nori), a police officer, was viciously beaten by masked cultists and now she’s in a wheelchair, and each night he goes out hunting the gang members he holds responsible. She knows he does it, and weirdly she accepts it, even as his grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous and his body more and more broken.

We know that Bruce loves his wife not because he’s trying to avenge her—he pummels people with night sticks not out of vengeance, but his own feeling of impotence for failing to protect her—and not because he tells her (Bruce is as taciturn and monosyllabic as any Arnold Schwarzenegger role, including the Terminator)—but because after a long night of cracking skulls he hurries home to give his wife her medication, and because they share a bath together, and because of how gentle he is when he dresses her and because of the way he obsesses over his wedding ring.

Bruce cuts an iconic image, like a cross between young Max Rockatansky and Christian Bale’s Batman, and there’s more than a little of Ray Stevenson’s Punisher in the cut of his jib. But he’s not a cartoon superhero. He’s not a cop or a soldier; he doesn’t possess “a particular set of skills.” He’s built like a gym rat and is as capable of doing violence as any of us. In that, he’s little different than Bronson’s Paul Kersey, a man galvanized into action by violence, galvanized toward violence by his own inability to act when he wife was attacked. He’s a pot of rage brought to boil by Ry Barrett’s full-throttle performance.

[Editorial aside: Just once I’d like to see the vigilante spend the whole movie just driving around town looking for bad guys to beat up but never finding them. Talk about conveying the powerlessness that the vigilante feels. Oh, and that vigilante should be played by Tom Hardy; it could be like Locke but with a revolver in the glovebox and a shotgun in the backseat instead of a pregnant mistress in a hospital down the road.]

Inevitably, Bruce’s obsession puts him on a collision course with self-destruction. He goes too far in his crusade, innocent people get caught in the crossfire. Things go completely off the rails when he fixates on a young woman (Jessica Vano) whom he mistakenly believes is connected to his wife’s attack. Suddenly, The Demolisher switches gears from a vigilante movie to a stalker movie, as Bruce chases the woman down empty alleyways and through abandoned buildings. He doesn’t run after her, though, he walks, even limps, always moving relentlessly, menacingly forward, evoking none other than Michael Myers. (I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the woman he’s chasing is also a babysitter?) This tonal shift is disconcerting and difficult to reconcile at first, particularly when Bruce is implausibly always just one step behind (or one step ahead) of the woman no matter how quickly she runs or how well she hides.

There are many more moments that recall other better movies, and I wonder how intentional they are, as well. Take The Demolisher’s opening shot, which lingers on the beaten and bloody face of Bruce’s wife, looking not so different than Uma Thurman in the first shot of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1. Of course, Tarantino was aiming for a cartoony genre blender of samurai, kung fu, western and Blaxploitation tropes and Carrer is reaching for something more akin to reality, or at least a heightened B-movie verisimilitude.

Filled with dread and pregnant with the expectation of sudden, brutal violence, The Demolisher is beautifully crafted and contains more than a few stunning images (shot by cinematographer Martin Buzora): the aforementioned stalking scene with Bruce silently, relentlessly limping down the middle of a midnight street; a shot of him in full riot gear bathed in soft red light; a shot of Bruce pouring fox blood over his face and head like a primal Viking berserker (his wife’s attackers were wearing fox masks so I’m sure there’s a connection).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s score, arranged by Glen Nicholls, who has worked with the likes of Prodigy, Snow Patrol, Depeche Mode and Sia, and here delivers an intense, driving electronic soundscape featuring Future Funk Squad, Tongue Muzzle and DJ Ten mixed with industrial sounds and punched up with heavy percussion.

While The Demolisher is frustrating at times—usually when I’m aching for Carrer to ditch the excessive use of slow motion and the babysitter’s needlessly lengthy backstory and cut loose with the ultraviolence—there’s so many obvious moments of brilliance that I’m looking forward to seeing it again.