I would love to have heard some of the undoubtedly nervous discussions concerning Death Wish over at MGM.
Anyone with a peripheral knowledge of American current events could tell you this might be the absolute worst time to release a film glorifying the “good guy with a gun” rationale, especially one involving a white protagonist hitting the streets of Chicago to carry out brutal vigilante justice. Released even five years ago (it spent quite a while in development hell), this could have been seen for the ludicrous and hyper-masculine revenge fantasy it is. Alas, right now it’s impossible to view a work with that ideology as anything other than reckless and insensitive. All this makes it difficult to admit that, for the most part, the Death Wish remake is pretty fun.
Predictably enough, the marketing has been nothing short of disastrous and critics have greeted the film itself with utter revulsion. At the same time, it’s hard to fault director Eli Roth, whose previous films were often outright cries against political correctness, for a lack of interest in ruminating on the troubling implications of vigilante violence when he would rather show you how rad it is when a bad guy’s head blows up real good. Death Wish’s saving grace ultimately lies in the fact it doesn’t for a single moment take itself seriously, and those who can stomach this kind of narrative shouldn’t either.
The 1974 original, which still holds up as a grimy little Charles Bronson vehicle, took an ostensibly more grounded approach than Roth and Bruce Willis take here. In that film’s most memorable scene, a shaken Bronson rushes into his bathroom and vomits after gunning down a mugger in self-defense. It isn’t exactly Taxi Driver, but there was at least an attempt to inject the character of Paul Kersey with a bit of pathos. Not until the gloriously silly third entry was Kersey turned into a geriatric superhero.
Roth’s remake casts Willis in the Kersey role, and while he’s without question a superior actor to Bronson, he’s only about a tenor above his usual sleepy-DTV mode here. The plot, which was controversial back in 1974 and now just generic revenge fare in today’s post-Taken and Punisher landscape, follows surgeon Kersey’s viscera-soaked crusade of vengeance after a vicious home invasion leaves his wife (Elisabeth Shue, where have you been?) dead and his daughter in a coma.
Describing the plot is largely a waste of time. It’s the least compelling aspect of the film, and Willis himself seems to be on autopilot during the obligatory mourning scenes. In fact, his transition from wholesome family man to infallible killing machine is rarely portrayed in the actual performance. The actor handles everything from eating breakfast with his family to caving in a creep’s skull with the same detached smirk that’s become his trademark.
No, what Roth really seems to be interested in is the ultraviolent setpieces, which have more in common with his Hostel films than, say, John Wick. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the director most known for helping usher in “torture porn” horror during the early Aughts invests much of his energy bringing that sensibility to the action/revenge picture. Indeed, a sadistic glee is present in scenes like the one where Willis slices open a thug’s cutaneous nerve and pumps it full of brake fluid. Nearly every well-staged sequence of mayhem brings with it some memorably squeamish element. For a movie so dedicated to tired genre tropes, there are genuine surprises in its violence.
In between those setpieces is where the rote nature of Joe Carnahan’s script starts to show. There are a few half-hearted attempts at commentary, particularly a wink-nudge scene demonstrating how effortless it is for a man like Kersey to legally arm himself with the type of weaponry that would give even a man like Chris Kyle a case of premature ejaculation. Of course, that scene is immediately undermined when we see just how badass our hero looks shooting a carjacker in the face.
Focusing on a man whose job is to save lives on the operating table, who then goes out and blows away criminals without batting an eye, may have provided a striking juxtaposition, but the movie only acknowledges this in a ham-fisted montage set to AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” Honestly, wasn’t there a law passed stating that song could never again be used in an action movie?
I’d be lying if I said I can recommend this movie without any trepidation. Frankly, I can’t imagine anyone besides desperate studio executives were clamoring for a Death Wish remake, and in light of frequent gun-related tragedies, I won’t feel any pity when something with such a morally reprehensible outlook dies an inevitably quick death at the box office. It’s not Roth’s, Willis’s or MGM’s fault that America sucks at the moment, and for those who can pretend this film exists in a cultural vacuum, there’s some enjoyment to be had here. That being said, now might be the time for Paul Kersey to actually retire.