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DEATH WISH (2018) review

March 2, 2018

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written by: Joe Carnahan
produced by: Roger Birnbaum
directed by: Eli Roth
rated: R (R for strong bloody violence, and language throughout)
runtime: 107 min.
U.S. release date: March 2, 2018

 

The punctuation-free tagline slapped on the poster of director Eli Roth’s remake of “Death Wish” is as lazy as its lead actor’s acting in recent years. Of course, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Annapurna Pictures are counting on moviegoers seeing this revenge fantasy with Bruce Willis and thinking it’s a comeback for the movie star – just look at the over-punctuated “Bruce. Is. Back.” slapped on the other retro-style poster for the movie – as if he hasn’t squandered his talent on VOD/limited-release crap since 2012 (his last good movie year), when he starred in “Moonrise Kingdom“, “Looper” and “The Expendables 2” (to add some balance, he also starred in three other bombs that year). Considering the audible cheers and hollers coming from the audience at the screening I attended (not from the critics, mind you), moviegoers will apparently delight in a sexagenarian novice enacting a personal urban vendetta.

Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) is a trauma surgeon at a fictional Chicago hospital, and a hard-working family man, alongside his wife, Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) and daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone), who’s about to leave for college in New York City. One night after getting called into work, violent thieves break into Paul’s house, killing Lucy and putting Jordan in a coma, disrupting their idyllic life forever. The peaceful doctor is let with the aftermath, unable to put much faith into the investigative efforts of Detectives Rains (Dean Norris) and Jackson (Kimberly Elise). He has his stubborn and aimless brother, Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio) to keep him company, but Paul is restless as he sees the results of street brutality each day at work, which only reminds him that the guys who destroyed his family are still out there.

 

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While he does see a counselor (Wendy Crewson) for therapy sessions, like anyone who has experienced such loss, Paul isn’t satisfied. He leaves his Evanston home at night and roams the streets in a hoodie, perusing homeless Chicago areas hoping to find some kind of lead on the murderers. He even thwarts a mugging on Wabash Avenue and in return gets a beating. Paul comes across a potential solution one night, when he stumbles upon a gun at work and in no time he’s testing it out in an abandoned warehouse (of course) and in a dangerous attempt at preventing a car-jacking. Unbeknownst to Paul, that event turns into a viral video, much to the chagrin of the detectives and soon local deejays Sway and Mancow Muller can be heard debating the pros and cons of vigilante justice. Paul becomes something of a media sensation, nicknamed “The Grim Reaper”, but he soon finds it a challenge to balance his everyday life with hunting down and killing the men responsible for upending his life. Once he gets a taste of taking out the city’s trash, how can he stop and go on like nothing has changed?

Well, the studios obviously don’t want Willis’ Paul Kersey to stop, considering the movie ends with a nod to the original ending, replicating a scene in which a scot-free Brosnan eyes a criminal and holds a finger gun in the air at the hoodlum. We’re supposed to smirk at that and maybe think a sequel will somehow be greenlit, but I hope not since there’s not a shred of originality in this movie. Roth is more concerned with checking the boxes of an exploitation flick, than delving into the moral dilemma and psychological struggles of becoming a killer after experiencing the violent effects of killing. The director of two “Hostel” movies and “The Green Inferno” is too preoccupied with making sure blood is splattered in just the right way and brains are visibly spilled, leaving no room to ground the story in any kind of reality. Again, this is simply revenge fantasy, despite the material showing potential for some in-depth character study. Instead of delving into the ramifications of turning into a murderer, we get a self-training gun fetish montage set to AC/DC’s “Back in Black”.

 

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The original “Death Wish” starring Charles Bronson took place in New York City and was massively controversial upon its release in 1974. It was based on a 1972 novel by Brian Garfield, who was making a statement about the futility of vigilantism, depicting his lead character as a man slowly brought to the edge of inhumanity. Bronson’s Kersey was an architect whose family is attacked by a gang, leaving his wife dead and his raped daughter in a coma. In his rage, the Korean War veteran took to the streets to enact violent revenge.

The blunt violence and the idea of a normal civilian going on a killing spree made the film divisive at the time, but it also became a massive hit, touching on the law-and-order mentality of the Nixon-Ford era. When Garfield viewed the movie, he was dissatisfied with the result due to its advocacy towards vigilantism, resulting in him writing a sequel novel called Death Sentence, which dealt with the consequences of vigilantism. That book was adapted in 2007 by director James Wan, starring Kevin Bacon and it’s a better movie than what Roth offers here, including some gut-wrenching cause-and-effect developments.

The original movie veered thematically from the source material, turning into a franchise with Bronson starring in four repetitive and uninspired sequels up until 1994. Much like Willis’ VOD career, which finds him sleepwalking from one role to the next, Brosnan got caught up making regurgitated crap in the 80s that resembled his “Death Wish” persona in ridiculous schlock like “10 to Midnight” and “Murphy’s Law”. At 62, Willis is ten years older than Brosnan was when he started playing Paul Kersey, but he looks just as tired and worn-out here as Brosnan did back then.

Each “Death Wish” movie Brosnan made became more and more laughable, with their rinse-and-repeat storylines and ludicrous kills (“Death Wish 5” features Bronson killing a bad guy with an exploding football), yet it only took Willis one “Death Wish” to elicit eye-rolling laughs. Part of that is because Willis already comes with action-man baggage that is difficult for him or viewers to shake. After all, Kersey is supposed to be just another hard-working, middle-class guy, someone anyone can relate to and see themselves in – so, making him an upper class surgeon loses that, leaving us with…Bruce Willis. The problem with that is Willis is at the point in his career where he’s forgotten how to care about a role. He’s physically there, but emotionally unavailable.

 

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I’m not just referring to the fact that we never see Willis totally lose it at the sight of his cold, dead wife on a hospital gurney or his daughter in a coma, hooked up on tubes. But there’s a scene early on, one of the first scenes with the Kersey family, where Shue and Willis learn that their daughter has been accepted to NYU. While Shue and first-time actress Camila Morrone laugh and hug, Willis just sits there at the kitchen table and offers a taciturn smirk, “I’m happy”, to which Shue replies how it’s hard to tell by the look on his face. I hope that line was improvised by Shue and she was speaking for the audience. A movie like this wouldn’t have gotten made without a “name actor”, but they could’ve chosen one who had brought all his facilities available for the role, like Vincent D’Onofrio perhaps.

The idea for a “Death Wish” remake has been rumored for sometime now. For a while, it appeared that Sylvester Stallone was going to write, direct and star in it, but he opted out (wise movie, Sly) and then it landed in the hands of writer/director Joe Carnanahan (“Narc”), who was set to take a shot at it with Liam Neeson and Frank Grillo, his actors from “The Grey“. I’m glad that didn’t happen. After all, there are three “Taken” movies. Instead, Roth steps in, working off a banal screenplay from Carnahan – it’s as if he wrote it while sitting on the toilet and instead of wiping himself with it, he decided to hand it over to Roth, who gladly used it.

Missed opportunities abound in this remake, offering a story that should look at the internal struggle or mental instability of its main character. However, Roth and Carnahan leave nothing for the audience to decide, firmly standing behind Paul’s actions, eschewing moral dissection to play shoot ’em up with flimsy characters and a routine kill-em-all premise. Apparently, Carnahan wanted to make a grounded, more realistic thriller, but ran for the exit once Willis came onboard, sensing “Death Wish” would be turned into a generic revenge thriller. He famously wrote an angry email to an MGM executive on their casting choice after he left, branding Willis “lazy” and “arrogant” during his tirade. Well, we definitely see lazy here.

One could say it’s definitely not a good time in America to release a movie which embraces gun-toting vigilantism with a complete disregard for any repercussions, one that offers a well-to-do white man as the answer to crime, but it’s never really a good time to release such an insensitive, tone-deaf movie. The crucial arc of pacifist-to-maniac is missing here, leaving the feature pointless, merely staging a “protect your family” parade. The only challenging thing about this movie is watching it.

 

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RATING: *

 

 

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