Death Wish (Movie Review)

Death Wish (Movie Review)
4 10

PLOT: After a home invasion leaves his wife dead and his daughter in a coma, a mild-mannered surgeon, Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) takes the law into his own hands, and begins murdering criminals.

REVIEW: DEATH WISH is no doubt a politically loaded film. Poorly timed in the wake of the Parkland shooting, and renewed national debate on gun ownership, Eli Roth’s remake of Michael Winner’s 1974 film isn’t skillfully made or smart enough to navigate the storm of controversy it’s opening in. But, politics aside, is it at least an entertaining actioner?

This marks Bruce Willis’s first theatrically released film since 2013 (RED 2) after years spent working in cheapo B-flicks (typically with tiny parts clearly shot in a day or two). The time away hasn’t led to Willis up’ing his game. If anything, this ranks among the laziest performances the former great has ever given. From, the first frame, Willis looks annoyed to be in front of the camera, and contributes a lifeless performance that’s a far cry from the icon we used to know. Willis barely even emotes, only allowing maybe a rogue tear to seep through, even when he’s standing over the dead body of his beloved wife or keeping a vigil for his daughter.

In fact, Charles Bronson, in the original DEATH WISH series, was a far more empathetic figure, despite the fact that the first film never tried to turn him into the hero they do here. In Winner’s original film, Kersey indiscriminately killed hoods, never coming across, or pursuing, the people that attacked his family. It was simply a random crime – there were no leads for him to track down. This made it an unsettling film, and Kersey was unambiguously a man losing his mind, and the movie never begged you to sympathize with him. The sequels were another thing, but this one tries to marry the randomness of the first to the vengeance of the latter-movies, and the result is a mess.

Clearly, we’re meant to cheer every time Willis kills a bad guy, but when the victims aren’t related to the attack early on, it can’t help but feel creepy in the way he’s idealized. Ambiguity, which I assume must have been there in the original script by Joe Carnahan, is much needed but utterly absent. The movie is tone-deaf in many places, particularly in a revolting early scene where Kersey’s father in law tries to shoot some poachers in the back, something the movie presents as heroic!

Once Kersey starts actually killing the men responsible, DEATH WISH turns into a typical revenge movie, with Roth sprinkling in some gore. The action isn’t that memorable, it’s mostly just quick shoot-outs and nothing you haven’t seen before. There’s no urgency or sense of danger, and Willis seems way too able to handle himself considering he’s supposed to be an average Joe. A more milquetoast leading man would have been better.

To give Roth some credit, he’s shot a good-looking film, with Montreal standing in for Chicago. It’s clean and polished, but also lacks the skid-row grit Winner brought to the originals (that’s not to say Winner’s films were perfect – the second film is actually pretty awful although 3 is fun in a “we’re psychopaths making a movie” kind of way). Elizabeth Shue makes a nice impression as the late Mrs. Kersey, while Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise get pretty two-dimensional parts as the cops on Kersey’s trail. Of everyone, the best performance comes from Vincent D’Onofrio as Kersey’s sympathetic brother, and unlike Willis he’s an empathetic figure. I wish he was playing the lead – he would have been a lot better.

In the end, DEATH WISH isn’t a great comeback for Willis, although I’m sure there’s an audience for this out there. As far as vigilante movies go, it’s on the low end of the spectrum. Neil Jordan’s THE BRAVE ONE with Jodie Foster actually works as a much better DEATH WISH remake, while James Wan’s DEATH SENTENCE, based on the “Death Wish” sequel novel by author Brian Garfield is a much better example of this kind of movie done right. Watch either of those, or even eighties DEATH WISH clones like VIGILANTE, and skip this one.



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