Death Wish, the ill-advised remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson vigilante classic—and audio-visual embodiment of the “Only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” talking point—was supposed to release last November. The mass shooting in Las Vegas prompted the studio to push it to March. It’s March. The horrific Parkland shooting is still fresh in everyone’s minds, yet Death Wish came out as planned. Perhaps the studio realized that it didn’t matter what date they pushed it to.
Those expecting to be enraged by a flippant action/thriller awkwardly trying to sit at the grown-ups table, spouting a bunch of outdated alpha male Wild West bullshit about citizens having unfettered access to any manner of firearms being a civilized society’s only cure for crime, all the while solely and shamelessly indulging in a maelstrom of hardcore gun nut jerk off fantasies—they’ll find a different movie than expected. Those hoping to be thoroughly entertained by a knowingly mindless, balls-to-the-wall exploitation throwback unafraid to drench the screen with that sweet, gooey red stuff—they’ll be disappointed too. What maybe no one could predict was to be met with meandering, mediocre and instantly forgettable ’90s-era standard action fare care of Eli Roth.
Death Wish indulges some references to how a gun is a man’s only savior, throwing some red meat to the NRA crowd, but they are few and far between. Plus, moving the film’s setting from New York, where the original novel and movie took place, to Chicago, the prime city for “whataboutism” when looking for a lazy way to get out of a gun control debate, is a sly wink and a nod to the movie’s intended audience. Otherwise, this is a standard vigilante/revenge fantasy too plodding to deliver the base genre goodies, and too simplistic to work as a character study on how a sudden life of violence can irredeemably disrupt an average citizen’s psyche, the way the original film at least half-heartedly attempted to do. No matter which side of the political divide you fall on, you won’t get your rage fix, you’ll just probably be bored by a slow first hour, as well as a lack of creative kills hidden by non-stop mugger maulin’.
We’ve seen this premise a million times. In this case, the vigilante-to-be is a doctor named Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis), whose life is turned upside down when a group of robbers kill his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and put his daughter (Camila Morrone) in a coma. So goes the routine: The first half of the second act is spent on Kersey frustrated with the cops’ inability to find the killers, leading him to take the law into his own hands, followed by a series of episodic sequences where the newly-minted badass blows some criminals’ brains out, followed by a series of episodic sequences but with Kersey suffering a minor flesh wound in order to give this tensionless affair a bare-bones attempt at conflict and stakes.
The change of the protagonist’s occupation from an architect to a doctor is an intriguing idea that could have not only delved into an exploration of what it means for a character who once was supposed to save lives, tasks himself with taking them. At the very least, Roth and writer Joe Carnahan could have played with the idea of a serial killer who has an extensive knowledge of human anatomy. We get one torture sequence that takes advantage of that, but otherwise the action set pieces here consist primarily of predictably standard gun battles. One would expect a gore-fiend horror helmer like Eli Roth to at least get creative with some hard-R graphic violence. Alas, all of Death Wish’s juicy bits can be—and are—contained in its grindhouse-friendly trailer.
Carnahan, whose Narc and The Grey were complexly masculine genre pieces, drops the ball by believing the audience would want to pay good money to watch Kersey grieve rather than Willis blowing some filthy muggers’ brains out. Carnahan also awkwardly switches from vigilante fantasy to a generic home invasion thriller during the film’s third act, misunderstanding the allure of the genre: Demoting Kersey back to victim status, the character’s appeal is lost.
Still, Roth adds a few deft satirical touches, such as Kersey’s vigilante alter ego turning into a bunch of Twitter memes, and the tense robbery sequence at the beginning reminds us of Roth’s horror roots—but this is mostly a run-off-the-mill, gun-for-hire affair. Willis still looks cool blasting bad guys away, but he’s a bit rusty when it comes to properly expressing Kersey’s grief, not to mention that Roth wastes the great Vincent D’Onofrio in a pointless role as Kersey’s supportive brother. Death Wish is as original as using AC/DC’s “Back in Black” during a training montage and then during the end credits. Which is what it does.
Director: Eli Roth
Written by : Joe Carnahan (based on Brian Garfield’s novel)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue, Camila Morrone, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise, Beau Knapp
Release Date: March 2, 2018