A guy like Eli Roth, remaking a story like Death Wish, in a year like this one. It’s basically a perfect storm of bad ideas. And yet, here it is.
Paul Kersey is a successful surgeon (though I’m pretty sure we only see him lose patients) whose wife is about to finally get her Ph.D. and whose daughter is about to finally go off to college. His life is perfect. Then his wife is murdered and his daughter gets put into a coma (for her sake alone, let’s hope Roth doesn’t try to remake Death Wish 2 as well). The police are no help, so what’s a guy to do but get a gun and go shoot some criminals?
It’s not like the first Death Wish was all that healthy a movie. There’s something inherently fascist about vigilantism, the idea that all is chaos, our protectors can’t help us, and only the power of one good man with a big enough set of balls can make things right. There are elements to this in most action films but the original Death Wish was not an action film. It was a drama. Eli Roth’s version is not. He actually tries to turn this into a fist-pumping fun movie. And who knows? For some audience members, it very well may be.
Roth has a hucksterism I respect, and while I doubt he could have predicted the events of last week or the fact that earlier today people in bullet headbands we’re marrying their fucking rifles (or whatever the hell), it’s also no secret that we’ve had some serious trouble in this country lately. The way Death Wish converses with the fears of your average Fox News viewer is troubling and irresponsible. Perhaps years from now, Death Wish will be just another poor-taste action film. Right now just isn’t the time for this sort of thing.
It would certainly help if the movie were better. The story basically writes itself, offering little to a set of tropes we all know by heart - especially if you’ve seen the original. The only pulse Roth provides is humor and gore. I didn’t find it all that funny, and while some of the violence is good, there’s not enough to cross it over into something special just for that.
Joe Carnahan’s script isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to create good performances, but Vincent D’Onofrio manages to deliver one anyway as Paul Kersey’s broke, then not-broke, endlessly supportive brother. The character is a mess, but he’s at least played well. No one else has quite the same luck, particularly poor Elizabeth Shue.
As for Bruce Willis, he’s sort of awake here, but doesn’t seem confident about how to play this character. Is he traumatized? Is he having the time of his life? Kersey seems troubled when he goes to sleep after his first kill, then wakes up chuckling to discover his new internet notoriety. Honestly, the happier Paul Kersey gets, the better Willis’ performance is. And his best scene comes when he’s torturing a dude.
The original Death Wish was a story about rage. There's a reason its Paul Kersey doesn't even bother looking for his wife's murderers. He takes his vengeance on the idea of crime itself, while also soothing his own feeling of helplessness. This one doesn't care to consider such ideas. It wants Kersey to buy a gun from a sexy lady and find his true happiness by spraying brains and getting praised on YouTube. And that's just what he does. There's no tension, no sense of consequence. It's all just raw vicarious fantasy for minds I'd rather not have at my Thanksgiving table.
I feel hypocritical here. I love movies that are in bad taste. I love when a filmmaker misreads the room and creates something that shouldn’t exist. I love violent movies. But as Kersey watches YouTube videos on how to clean his gun while the soundtrack blares AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, I couldn’t help but feel this is a film made by and for assholes. Go watch James Wan’s incredible Death Sentence instead.