In all of the nightmare scenarios that Eli Roth has cooked up in the past, he probably couldn’t have written a more unwelcoming and hostile zeitgeist to deliver his latest film, Death Wish, into. Just two weeks after an assailant took the lives of 17 victims at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the Bruce Willis-starring, gun-toting revenge fantasy – a remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson film of the same name – champions vigilante justice and romanticizes gun violence in gleefully tone-deaf manner, one that only works in a deluded Trumpian analysis of America and opportunist justice. Worse still, with no style or swagger of its own to speak of, Death Wish has little flair to hang upon its misguided and decidedly uncritical core, making it one big, stinking waste of time and not much fun to boot.
Delayed from its original November 2017 release – ostensibly because of the October Las Vegas shooting that left 58 dead and over 800 injured, which in turn was followed closely by the slaying of 26 in a Texas church – Death Wish arrives in the midst of yet another American mass shooting. Because that is life in the United States. In a culture where school shootings and public mass killings have become the tragic norm of American life, Death Wish steps up to the plate with butterflies in the cranium; nothing substantive to say. And that’s a problem. A big one. Even on the most basic level, I have trouble dissecting exactly what it is Roth wants to achieve with this film. It’s all well and good to make a movie of little or no substance – hell, Roth’s career has been defined by movies of little or no substance – but to remake an already controversial thriller, one must imagine there was some justification along the way. At least some kind of pitch to the suits paying the bills. Whatever that motivating cause may have been is completely absent on screen.
Is this a plea for more DIY justice or a condemnation of such? It’s not entirely clear. And again, that’s problematic. If anything, I would wager that Roth’s ideology falls more in line with the former – a rowdy, go-get-em cheer for “good man with a gun” – but without Roth ever scratching below the most superficial of surfaces – man hot for vengeance gits his killing in, saves day – there is no critical takeaway here that goes beyond the flurry of gruesome images, head-bangingly potboiler dialogue, and bone-dry performances.
Bruce Willis, who displays no signs of aging this past decade, is Paul Kersey, a man so bland that the description those who witness his street-side vigilantism give – “just some white guy” – hits the nail perfectly on the head. Kersey is indeed just some white guy. Mugging and scowling for the camera in equal measure, Willis is outright bad in the film, flopping from scene to scene without any sense of emotional consistency and totally lacking that charismatic rough and tumble playboy appeal or raw, low-boiling intensity that lights up his better performances.
The first scene reveals that Kersey is a trauma surgeon and this fact alone got my blood pumping, the notion of a doctor gone rogue an interesting foil to the normal ex-cop, ex-military, ex-specialist bang-em-up mouse hunt we’re used to. Those who expect this element to come into play as Kersey hunts down the men who murdered his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and shot his daughter (a very bad Camila Morrone) will be tragically disappointed. Instead, Kersey turns himself into another faceless gunman, through a handful of meh montages, transforming Death Wish‘s plot into another painfully wash-rinse-repeat “scorned dude out for blood” trip down Hollywood movie memory lane.
If Bryan Mills’ has a certain set of skills, so too does Kersey, a celebrated doctor. I, for one, expected him to use his expert knowledge of human anatomy to inflict scenes of grueling, drawn-out torture upon those who wronged him. Especially so in the hands of the man who directed such gruesome exploitation films as Hostel (and then convinced himself a sequel that was basically 100-minutes of torture was a good idea). That germ I could understand, and would cast light upon why Roth signed onto the project. But it’s just not the case.
Were it not for a few flashes of the gory exploitation that Roth is known for – a man’s head crushed like a melon under a car, a brutal neck snap for the ages – Death Wish seems like the kind of studio smut they hand off to a director for hire. Even Roth’s hoot-and-holler splashes of violence – which, I admit, I enjoyed (because, horror)- are the equivalent of a band-aid on a shotgun wound. It’s nowhere near enough. The script written by Joe Carnahan (The Grey), who was originally signed on to direct as well, is full of super generic quotes like “You don’t find him, he finds you” where the unconvincing line reads make them even more DOA. Carnahan includes rudimentary commentary on how anyone can get a gun at any time but, in a mind-blowing turn of events, this is presented as a solution, not a problem.
Take for instance, a scene where Kersey walks into a bathroom and dials the number of a man he intends to kill. A phone rings in a stall. Kersey promptly walks up to said stall and empties a clip before the door even opens up. I won’t spoil the outcome but needless to say, in the digital age, a buzzing phone should not be a death sentence. Nonetheless, Death Wish never pauses to consider the very real collateral damage that would transpire in this scenario. There’s constant “commentary” running interference in the background, radio jockeys debating the pros and cons of the merchant of death they’ve decided to label the “Grim Reaper”.
Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays Kersey’s down-on-his-luck brother, is the only one who displays anything resembling human emotion, surrounded by characters like Dean Norris’ Chi-town detective whose only character trait is his trying – and mostly failing – to be gluten-free. Everyone else is bad to worse; cliche renditions of Hollywood tropes; shadows of a shadow. Camila Morrone, who plays Willis’ daughter, makes Taken’s Maggie Grace look Oscar-caliber. She literally goes from scream-crying to A-okay chipper from one scene to the next, as if she received pages for the script one amnesic day at a time, assuming the series of scenes she appears in have nothing to do with another. We over here on critical island call that phenomenon – where characters remain consistent from one scene to the next and their prior experiences impact them – a “story”.
Take all that nonsense and add it to the fact that Death Wish is poorly paced – including a 20 minute introduction that fails to create sympathy or properly define any of its characters – and tension-free – even the should-be-terrifying home invasion scene failed to make my hair stand on end – and you have a tone-deaf revenge fantasy that only barely even gets the adrenaline pumping. It should play perfectly for the NRA on ED medication crowd.
CONCLUSION: Eli Roth’s remake of ‘Death Wish’ is rote, redundant, reductive work, poorly paced and overstuffed with lazy performances and bad dialogue. Worse still, it romanticizes gun violence and vigilantism, paying lip service to the ongoing debate on firearms in America while refusing to engage with the topic on any level deeper than a flesh wound. With no substantive value – and not enough entertainment value – it’s a blight on Roth’s already sketchy reputation.