I’m guessing that when Joe Carnahan set out to remake DEATH WISH, he didn’t imagine the end result as a film that would leave Donald Trump positively aroused, but here we are.
Before the Wednesday night press screenings, director Eli Roth appeared in a short video segment where he encouraged audiences to take to social media if they loved the film, warning them to “shut the fuck up” until Saturday if they didn’t or he would track them down and “go Bear Jew” on them. I’ve known Eli long enough to know how not-seriously that should be taken, but it’s an off-putting choice as the start to a fairly wrong-headed update of a movie that was so of-its-time that it might as well have been called 1974: The Movie.
For those who haven’t seen the original or who haven’t seen it in a while, it’s a blunt object of a film that wants to ultimately take an ambiguous look at the notion of vigilante violence. It starts with Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) on vacation with his wife. They share a brief moment of peace before they fly back to New York, where Kersey’s wife and daughter are savagely attacked in their apartment by a group of greasy thugs that includes a young, unpolished Jeff Goldblum. One of the main points of the original is that even once Kersey starts killing people with his handgun, none of them have anything to do with the attack on his family. Those thugs disappear from the movie early, and that’s sort of the point. He’s not Batman. He’s not righting some wrong. He’s just a broken man who takes his pain and decides to kill people as a way of making himself feel better. It’s an ugly movie by design, and Vincent Gardenia played a cop who wasn’t quite sure what to do with this mad dog, finally ordering him out of the city at the end, making him someone else’s problem.
Bruce Willis plays Paul Kersey this time out, and I’m not sure what to make of Willis as an actor these days. This is a weird performance, full-stop. Not good. Not bad. Weird. Willis hasn’t been seen in a theatrical lead role since 2013, the year he made sequels to Die Hard, RED, and G.I. Joe, and he’s oddly inexpressive these days. He has some big moments to play here, and he summons a tear or two, but he’s essentially been reduced to one expression. Even when his face smiles, his eyes don’t, and he always ends up back in that same steely glower. That’s fine for the majority of this film, but in the early stretch, when the Kerseys are still just going through the motions of their happy lives, Willis already seems like he’s always on the verge of violence.
And sure enough, violence lands on the Kerseys. Part of the point of the original film was that the early ‘70s had become so dangerous, so lawless, that violence could randomly land on anyone. Here, things are more focused. The Kerseys are targeted and the actual break-in and attack is a much bigger set piece. His wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) is killed and their college-aged daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) is left comatose, and Paul breaks right down the middle. Or at least… that’s what the movie wants us to feel. Willis doesn’t really demonstrate any change. Sure, he develops a sudden interest in hoodies and late-night walks, but he never really sells the idea that Paul is doing this because he’s been damaged by this trauma. He just throws a light switch. “Oh, hey, I guess I could get a gun and kill people. That seems like a cool hobby.” The film also suffers from this weird idea that you have to make your lead heroic. You have to justify his actions. When they have a little boy hit by random gunfire come into Kersey’s operating room, it’s pretty clear Paul’s going to go find that drug dealer and murder him. And sure enough, it got a big cheer from the audience I saw the film with, which perfectly illustrates my issues with this one.
Is Death Wish simply feel-good wish fulfillment violence? Or is this film offered up as some sort of social commentary? Because as the first, Roth does the job he was hired to do. The film is structured like a slasher movie, with Paul Kersey as your cheerful, totally-in-the-right slasher. He very specifically keeps looking for clues about his own family’s attack, and once he’s on the trail, it becomes a revenge film, which is almost totally different in purpose than a vigilante movie. Dean Norris is the detective on the case because, presumably, he has experience tracking down bald guys leading deadly double lives, and it’s a thankless part. He’s given way less to play than Gardenia was in a role that was essentially the same. The film even follows the Fatal Attraction playbook, making sure that once the cops think everything’s over, there’s one last chance for the Kersey family to be put in harm’s way, and sure enough, Paul responds with a gore-soaked final rampage, all designed to make us feel good about things. After all, they’re the ones who wouldn’t stop. They’re the ones who broke in. They’re the ones who kept attacking Paul, so he had no choice. But the film is useless as a commentary on real gun violence and the cycles that perpetuate it, and that may feel doubly frustrating considering the current political climate. Carnahan’s drafts on the film felt more directly pointed at the strange love affair we have with guns, while Roth (perhaps unavoidably) dragged the film back into the area of pure, morality-free exploitation.
I did like Vincent D’Onofrio as Paul’s brother, and I think the film might have worked better if D’Onofrio had been the lead. He’s a guy who could convince me that he was wrestling with the line between good and bad. Meanwhile, the Kerseys live in a Chicago where the only two media outlets appear to be Mancow and Sway on Sirius XM, and as far as tech credits go, the film’s fine. Rogier Stoffers’ photography gives the film a much more confident sense of visual swagger than most of Roth’s films, and the score by Ludwig Göransson certainly underlines that Roth sees this more as a horror film than anything. Mark Goldblatt is one of the gold standards when it comes to action editing, and he knows how to punctuate Roth’s gore gags with remarkable precision. If you cackle at a gory payoff to a death, you will get a workout by the time the credits roll, but I was personally left wishing that if this Wish had to be made again, it had been done in a way that actually contributed to the conversation rather than just adding one more pile of bodies.
Running time: 108 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic