Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake has more in common with Death Wish 2 than Death Wish. (That’s not a good thing.)
It would be enormously misleading to call Eli Roth’s Death Wish a remake of the controversial 1974 movie, about a mild-mannered man who becomes addicted to vigilante violence after the assault of his daughter and the murder of his wife. The original Death Wish was a serious drama that asked difficult questions about the personal and societal impact of violence. The new film is a shallow action thriller that decides, early on, that vigilante violence is awesome, and has few (if any) negative consequences.
They may have similar plots, but Eli Roth has changed the tone of Death Wish so much that for all intents and purposes it is no longer a remake of Death Wish. If anything, it’s a remake of Death Wish 2, the first film in the franchise to completely miss the point by turning Charles Bronson’s character into some kind of righteous avenging angel of death, instead of a mentally-ill murderer who happens to have a tragic backstory.
The new Death Wish stars Bruce Willis, taking over from Bronson, as Paul Kersey, an affluent doctor and family man whose wife and daughter become victims of a home invasion. His wife now dead, and his daughter in a coma, Paul Kersey struggles with his grief and becomes increasingly frustrated with the police department, who don’t seem to have any leads.
Exit Theatre Mode
So Paul Kersey, feeling powerless and paranoid, decides to get himself a gun. He doesn’t get one legally, oh no. Fate just gives him a freebie, courtesy of a gunshot victim at the hospital, who happens to drop one in a crowded room in just such a way that no one but Paul can see it. A few minutes later Death Wish starts blaring AC/DC’s “Back in Black” at full volume, while Paul trains to use his newfound weapon. Subtle, this movie is not.
What follows is a mediocre action thriller, in which Paul Kersey exacts vigilante justice on criminals in his neighborhood and is then celebrated by the media – represented almost entirely by early morning radio DJs – for murdering criminals in the streets. Their debates about the morality of Paul Kersey’s actions ultimately invite the audience to come to their own conclusions, which might have been reasonable if the movie didn’t clearly side with Kersey in every way.
Paul Kersey doesn’t just kill criminals, he’s empowered by it. His violence ameliorates his grief. His fury is ratified by the community. When another character finally does find out about his secret, their concern is only how to keep Paul from being arrested, not how to get him help. Eli Roth goes out of his way to equate Paul Kersey’s rampage through the streets of Chicago to a farmer shooing poachers off of his land. It’s the wild west out there, and it’s every man for himself.
Eli Roth has spent most of his career making horror movies that bring up big philosophical ideas and then only deal with them in the broadest possible strokes, relying on gut punch violence to entertain his audience between bullet points. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Roth brings some of his trademark gore to Death Wish, but true to form, as gross as it is, it’s presented in such a way as to make it seem “cool.” As if there’s nothing inherently tragic about a previously non-violent person who now delights in cutting someone open and torturing their insides.
But even if you consider the new Death Wish in a vacuum, free from any thematic commentary, it’s not a particularly good action movie. It’s got an incredibly thin story that relies on total coincidences to move from one important plot point to another. Even its own justification for vigilante violence – that the cops aren’t doing their jobs – falls apart when you realize that, if Paul Kersey had done his civic duty and told the cops about a clue that stumbles his way, they could have arrested the criminals who attacked his family and that conventional justice would have prevailed. As for the action sequences, the word “meh” was invented for just this sort of situation. They are competently filmed but unremarkable.
Meanwhile, the cast does what little they can with the material. Bruce Willis excels at being flippant and shooting people, but he looks completely lost the rest of the time. Keep an eye on him as he goes about Paul Kersey’s day job. He always looks as though it’s always five minutes to quitting time and he’s completely mentally checked out already. Elisabeth Shue brings dignity and tragedy to her brief time on-screen, almost making you forget that her character is basically just a walking storytelling device. And Vincent D’Onofrio brings some sympathetic shades to Paul’s ex-con brother who, it turns out, has almost no impact on the story, to the extent that you wonder why he’s even in the film.
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