Death Wish (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)
Updated: Mar 15, 2020
DEATH WISH (2018)
Starring Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Camila Morrone, Elisabeth Shue, Dean Norris, Beau Knapp, Kimberly Elise, Len Cariou, Jack Kesy, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Andreas Apergis, Ian Matthews, Wendy Crewson, Warona Setshwaelo, Stephanie Janusauskas, Isaiah Gero-Marsman, Jason Cavalier, Luis Oliva and Mike Epps.
Screenplay by Joe Carnahan.
Directed by Eli Roth.
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 107 minutes. Rated R.
Years of distance and a few bad sequels have made it easy to forget how good the original 1974 Death Wish was in capturing the zeitgeist of urban crime and decay in New York City in the 70s. Based on the 1972 novel of the same name by Brian Garfield, it took a look at a New York architect named Paul Kersey – played by Charles Bronson, in arguably his best role ever – whose happy life is exploded when his wife was killed and his daughter was raped during a home invasion.
For a while he relied upon the police to bring the killers to justice – after all the guy is a civilized liberal, he was even a conscientious objector during the Korean War. However, he quickly realized how overmatched the cops are, so he gets a gun and starts hanging out in Central Park looking for crimes to avenge. The film was very controversial at the time for somewhat glorifying the vigilante justice – the novel it was based upon was much more critical of taking the law in your own hands – but the movie was a thoughtful and well-made look at a man who was driven to acts he would have never believed he was capable of.
It was relatively violent, but it wasn’t excessive. Then came Death Wish 2 to Death Wish 5, in which the violence became progressively more cartoonish and the filmmakers’ motives became shadowy and exploitative. Now, decades after the series sputtered to a halt (though many films in those years have aped the basic storyline of Death Wish), Eli Roth has decided to reboot Death Wish with Bruce Willis in the lead. Unfortunately, this Death Wish has more in common with the four excessively-violent sequels, rather than the smart, thoughtful original film.
The action has moved from New York to Chicago for some reason… I guess because New York is no longer the US crime capitol, Chicago has taken that sad perch. Kersey is now a heroic ER doctor rather than an architect this go around, too.
Interestingly, in theory, Bruce Willis is not a bad choice of an actor to take on a Charles Bronson role – both actors are known for their low-key, close to the vest, slightly wooden acting styles. Also, Willis should be comfortable with the role, since he played basically the same part in Unbreakable and its upcoming sequel Glass. Unfortunately, Willis is particularly stoic here, saying “Look what those animals did to my baby” with all the strangled emotion of a man finding out that his deli is out of pimento loaf.
Willis’ inability to pull off anything resembling feeling is particularly noticeable because he plays several scenes up against Vincent D’Onofrio – in his squirrelly mode – as the doctor’s black sheep younger brother. D’Onofrio’s character may be a little twitchy, but he has passion, he feels things, he understands the stakes here. Watching D’Onofrio acting rings around Willis makes you wish that he had been given the lead role instead. It would have made for a more interesting movie.
Not that the movie really gives Willis a lot of heavy lifting. The film never really delves into the psychological weight of the huge shift that Willis’ doctor must go through; morphing from a man who works hard to save lives into a man who cold-bloodedly takes them. It’s a waste, because if you weren’t going to explore the moral and personal implications of that transformation, why change the character from an architect to a doctor in the first place?
It’s not the fault of Death Wish, I know it has been in the works for months, but the film suddenly feels a little tone-deaf coming out just two weeks after the Parkland school shootings. Death Wish’s romanticizing of semi-automatic weapons and vigilante violence suddenly feels different and colder than it may have last month. There’s a particularly hinky joke from a gun-store clerk about the ease of getting around background checks, which may have gotten a cheap laugh earlier, but now just feels insensitive. Oh, I get it, Bruce Willis is supposed to be that good guy with a gun that the NRA keeps nattering on about. Yeah, right. No.
Part of the problem with that is the fact that unlike Bronson in the original, it hits a point where it seems that Dr. Kersey likes his new bloody sidelight a little too much. He puts it before his career – a surgeon who injures his hand should be a massive concern, but he doesn’t seem to give it a second thought when it happens to him in his first vigilante attack. Though, luckily for the doctor, the gash on his hand seems to come and go from here on out in the movie – sometimes he is wearing a band-aid, sometimes not, and when he isn’t his hand appears to be completely fine. Then again, Death Wish doesn’t seem to care much about medical concerns: his daughter goes from being near death in a weeks-long coma to being completely healed and rehabbed in a matter of days.
The doctor also doesn’t seem concerned with verifying that he is shooting the right people. At one point, just on the hearsay of a boy he has never met before, he hunts down a drug dealer named “The Ice Cream Man.” He goes to the block, picks out the guy most likely to be him, and asks “Are you the Ice Cream Man?” The dealer pulls a gun and asks, “Who are you?” Dr. Kersey says, “Your last customer” and shoots him several times. He never had any verification that this guy was the Ice Cream Man, or that he was guilty of anything other than carrying a gun. He took a guess. A pretty safe guess, granted, but what if he was wrong? After all, the Ice Cream Man didn’t have a crew to take Kersey out after he shot their boss, so you have to wonder what the deal was. Did he rule the streets just on the strength of his scary personality and his ice cream cart? What if the guy he shot was really just an innocent ice cream man? But Dr. Kersey just walks away and gets deified by talk radio for keeping the streets safe.
The doctor also hits a point where he seems even more sadistic than the bad guys. One scene where he tortures and kills a bad guy in a car garage is way more psychotic than anything the crook – who was granted a very, very bad man – had done to the doctor’s wife and daughter.
At least Bronson had the good taste to look like he wasn’t enjoying himself.
Death Wish asks some vitally important questions about life in the modern world, but then dismisses them with a shrug and a wink. Is it fair to hold its breezy exploitative vibe against Death Wish in a world that seems to be moving on from its viewpoint? Perhaps not. And you know what? Exploitation films can be good, smart, funny, involving.
The new Death Wish had the opportunity to be a good film. In fact, I will go so far as to say that as a movie it had some very decent parts which sadly ended up as a muddled whole. They even blatantly remade the original Death Wish’s iconic final shot, though it is not handled as adroitly and as subtly as in the first version. No one should expect deepness and sensitivity from a Bruce Willis movie, however, the reboot of Death Wish could have been so much more than the throwaway piece of revenge porn that it has turned out to be.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2018 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 2, 2018.
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