A film review by Craig J. Koban March 17, 2018

DEATH WISH (2018) zero stars  

2018, R, 108 mins.

 

Bruce Willis as Paul Kersey  /  Vincent D'Onofrio as Frank Kersey  /  Dean Norris as Detective Rains  /  Elisabeth Shue as Lucy Kersey  /  Jack Kesy as The Fish  /  Beau Knapp as Knox  /  Kirby Bliss Blanton as Bethany  /  Mike Epps as Dr. Chris Salgado  /  Len Cariou as Ben  /  Kimberly Elise as Detective Jackson

Directed by Eli Roth  /  Written by Joe Carnahan, based on the book by Brian Garfield

Eli Roth’s DEATH WISH - a remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson starring original - is not only an incredibly ill timed and wholly unnecessary movie, but it's also a numbingly sleazy one as well. 

It’s sleazy for wanting to have thoughtful commentary about guns, gun violence, and vigilante justice, but only ends up celebrating its “hero’s” carnage and making him “cool."   To drive the latter point home, he's showcased in nifty montages that have AC/DC blaring on the soundtrack for added shallow effect.  That, and DEATH WISH's biggest sin is that it comes out just a few short weeks after the Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Florida, which left multiple teenagers dead.  The real life killer used an AR-15, a weapon which is referenced in DEATH WISH, but this retooling of the original one-man revenge thriller has no time for thoughtful discourse; it's all about embracing its protagonist's vengeance fuelled blood letting as he mows down one target after another.  This film is an NRA spokesperson's wet dream.

I'm no prude.  I've liked violent movies.  I've liked violent movies about hard boiled killers that, yes, have used guns of multiple varieties to inflict harm on their targets (the recent JOHN WICK series comes to mind, which features its assassin take down vermin with increasingly creative manners via the end of a pistol or machine gun).  What makes DEATH WISH so unforgivably empty minded is that it wants to have its cake and eat it too in terms of trying to address real life debates about the nature America's gun control problems and lone nut justice while also wanting to be a shameless grindhouse thriller that sensationalizes its nauseating brand of barbarism for cheaply thrilling payoffs.  You can't have it both ways.  That's ultimately what makes this remake so artistically bankrupt, if not patently offensive to sit through.  The original DEATH WISH, to be fair, was a lighting rod of controversy when it was released: It featured Bronson playing an architect that goes on a vigilante killing spree to avenge the murder of his wife and sexual assault of his daughter by home invaders.  That film was also released during a troubling era in American history.  Now, though, our news headlines seem ever more permeated with stories of whack jobs that have easy access to guns and cause irreparable harm to others as a result, leaving the hero worshiping of this film's mass murderer all the more revolting. 

 

 

Even more lamentable is the fact that there is ample talent on board here in front of and behind the camera, which makes this film's frustrating carelessness stick out like a proverbial sore thumb.  Roth's re-imagining of the '74 version is relatively faithful in narrative trajectory, albeit with a few tweaks here and there to ground it in a modern day social media savvy world.  In this version the vigilante isn't a New York based architect, but rather a hard-working and affluent Chicago residing surgeon, Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis), who supports his loving family, made up of wife, Lucy (Elizabeth Shue) and daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone), the latter who's just been accepted to a prestigious college.  His seemingly perfect life comes crashing down around him when his home is burglarized while he's at work, which tragically left the defenseless Lucy being murdered trying to defend her daughter, who was brutalized so badly that she's placed in a coma.  In the aftermath of this Paul hits emotional rock bottom, and in particular becomes annoyed at the lack of progress by the local police detectives (Dean Norris and Kimberley Elise).  He manages to secure himself a gun, teaches himself how to strip, clean, and use it, and decides to take justice into his own hands.  The local news and social media as a whole dub him "The Grim Reaper" for the quick lethality he brings to his prey, which catches the eyes of the same detectives that are hunting for the perps from Paul's home invasion.

There are feeble attempts here - as previously mentioned - by Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan (who has directed some fine movies in his own right in NARC and THE GREY) to sprinkle in scenes here and there featuring news talk radio hosts debating the pros and cons of Paul's wanton death fixation and unflinching desire to right past wrongs, but there's so very little meat to the bones of these moments that they come off as hopelessly tone deaf, at least with the type of hip and stylish vibe that Roth is clearly and shamelessly aiming for here.  This movie isn't fascinated in the slightest with probing the fragile psychological  mindset of what would make a morally upstanding person turn to murder.  There's also a potentially fascinating thematic undercurrent that could have been explored about how a surgeon that's sworn an oath to do no harm and save lives could so easily take lives later, but DEATH WISH displays zero inclinations to tap into that.  It would rather hone in on the gory particulars of Paul's crimes for the purposes of tawdry titillation.

And, man, DEATH WISH is violent.  Almost savagely so.  There are numerous gruesome scenes showing Paul use not only guns, but - for example, and in no particular order - bowling balls, darts, wrenches and even cars to enact his own brand of gory justice.  DEATH WISH, much akin to Roth's HOSTEL films, are basically sickening violence porn that revel in Paul's victims being filled with bullets and, in one stomach churning sequence, having their sciatic nerve sliced open and battery acid poured over the gapping wound (that poor sap later has his face and skull crushed in when Paul drops a hoisted up car on it for maximum overkill value).  It's a bit of a stretch, to say the least, to believe that an upper class do-gooder like Paul would become as quickly proficient with guns as he appears here, but it feels like pure science fiction for us to credibly buy into this once reserved man going to tortuous extremes to serve as judge, jury, and execution to those that have wronged him. 

Willis seems all kind of wrong for this part, mostly because he has such an iconic legacy of being one of cinema's greatest action heroes ever in the first few DIE HARD films, which hurts our buy in for him as an ordinary everyman that becomes a ruthlessly effective murderer.  He never feels authentic as a doctor, nor does he seem to display any level of fiery and maniacal edge to him as his pacifist turned death dealer (imagine a Michael Shannon with this role).  Aside from a few small scenes where he displays some genuine performance range, Willis' work here is borderline comatose and emotionally flat.  Ironically, his character's brother is played by Vincent D'Onofrio, and the instant he appears on screen in the story you immediately wished that he and Willis swapped roles.  Willis' genuinely lack of conflict and range hurts DEATH WISH overall, but not as much as how sloppily his character's whole arc is written.  In the fantasy la-la land that is this movie's story, the good doctor gets away with everything in a miraculously consequence-free manner, which speaks poorly to not only the abilities of law enforcement presented in the film, but also their willingness to turn a blind eye to his crimes without any hesitation in the world.

I remember reading about how Brian Garfield, the original writer behind the DEATH WISH novel, cried foul at how the first Bronson film abandoned the anti-vigilante themes of his book and instead went the polar opposite route.  There was a splendid opportunity here for Roth and company to perhaps faithfully tap into Garfield's infinitely more compelling angle to his core themes, but DEATH WISH adds absolutely nothing new here to the table.  Roth is more purely motivated by the slimy B-grade shoot-em-up luridness that the premise has to offer, and nothing else.  And not only that, but considering the hellish real-world atrocities that have punctuated our day-to-day news cycle, there's something very puerile about a film that features a white man of wealth and privilege hunting down, targeting, and blowing away minorities for the purposes of entertainment.    DEATH WISH, without question, is the wrong kind of film being released at the most horribly inappropriate time.  

Then again, when is it ever a good time to release an irredeemably bad  movie such as this? 

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