Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake is a “What were they thinking?” shoot-em-up baffler from start to finish. Irresponsibly tone deaf, maverick in its thematic ignorance and pornographic in its fetishistic gun obsession. There’s never a point where vi-o-lent vigilante justice might *not* be the answer, always gruesomely inflicted with Rothian levels of fatal body trauma. For a movie that opens with media chatter about how Chicago’s criminal epidemic has reached near-dystopian levels, there’s a shocking lack of responsible messaging under peeled layers of flesh. No matter how much you might want to separate your politics from movies, Death Wish refuses to let you. It’s a dumbfounding example of the exact kind of weapons normalization we *do-f#&king-not* need in mainstream pop culture right now.
Bruce Willis is Roth’s Charles Bronson, playing the “Lake Shore Drive” lookin’ surgeon Dr. Paul Kersey. He’s a loving husband and father who’s given a heartbreaking birthday present – a dead wife (Elisabeth Shue) and comatose daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone). Paul feels failed by a justice system with no immediate leads (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise his precinct contacts), so he takes matters into his own hands. The aged doctor wastes no time training with a stolen pistol only days before seeking comfort in dead wrongdoers. First by stopping crimes at random, then with intent to hunt the three homicidal burglars who ruined his life. That’s how he gets the internet nickname of “Grim Reaper” – an urban angel of death who people fear or worship.
Death Wish was always going to be an ultra-violent revenge spectacle. You don’t hire Eli Roth without visions of exposed viscera (a la James Wan and Death Sentence), and *bloody hell* does gore splatter something unmentionable – mission accomplished. Whether it be a simple headshot that projects thick squirts or indented craniums upon a staircase impact fall, this isn’t some PG-13 Neeson joint. Deserving criminals die horrible, unspeakable deaths, especially during a greasemonkey interrogation that involves nerve exposure, brake fluid and one crushed-under-automobile drop that pops poor Mr. Criminal like warm bodega fruits softened by the NYC sun (“Kill of the” Year potential). Organs mangled, chunks of brain flecks sent flying out of a canon.
Roth delivers the exact Hostel-squeamish Death Wish his historical career promised – which, in large part, is also the issue given how Death Wish somehow boasts less subtlety than Troy Duffy’s The Boondock Saints.
Scene after scene we’re subjected to pistol-blastin’ glorification that never cares to suggest consequence. Willis’ Dr. Kersey? Over the course of one self-taught training montage set to AC/DC’s “Back In Black,” Kersey confirms just *how easy* it is to follow YouTube tutorial videos that’ll grant you the aim of Butch Cassidy. He rattles multiple hornets’ nests, outguns serial criminals and walks away flashing the same unfazed grimace as before (we’ll return to this later). White-ass, hoodie-cloaked Bruce Willis strolls up to a group of African American drug dealers – who, in context, shot a child – and unloads chaotic retribution on the golden-gatted “Ice Cream Man” in broad daylight. Enter radio squawkers “Sway” Calloway and “Mancow” Muller to briefly weigh in on the street-cleaning act via audio blurbs, and before long we’re right back to Bruce Willie cappin’ another trashbag. No questioning beyond “I mean, is it *that* bad?” (SOMEONE PLEASE SAY YES, FOR THE LOVE OF HUMANITY.)
Writer Joe Carnahan and Roth are *trying* to expose the ease with which Kersey can buy a gun (Bethany the Bikini-model saleswoman) and discharge ammunition with explicit intent to harm (Norris’ office has a board full of unsolved deaths – “Gonna need a bigger board” Jaws reference), but their fault is never addressing *anything* wrong with increasingly alarming on-screen suggestions. Two inconsequential inserts resonate so impishly – one of Sway’s commentators references the white-on-black issue of “Ice Cream Man’s” death and another nightly news insert confirms a father-of-three copycat “Reaper” gets killed – and both land with the contrasting impact of a post-production afterthought. Not even Uwe Boll could dream up such one-sided ignorance.
Dr. Kersey evolves into this stone-cold killer overnight, offs a few bad men in the name of grief-stricken vengeance, inspires vigilantism that’s *never* objected, and walks away clean after a lawman’s free pass. Cue a pizza slice joke, roll credits. Every broken law and piled corpse leads to a nod and “Hey, just don’t do this anymore because you have a daughter.” Not “Hey, VIGILANTE JUSTICE IS PROBABLY A MORE COMPLEX AND INCENDIARY TOPIC THAN THIS TRIGGER HAPPY NRA WET DREAM SUGGESTS.”
You can blame Roth’s overt fist-to-face stylings for this, but Bruce Willis’ “deadpan” performance is equally incomprehensible. First we meet family-man Dr. Kersey, who showers his loved ones with kisses and *doesn’t* fight asshole parents at children’s soccer games, then tragedy strikes and the “Grim Reaper” is born – a shift in persona that turns Willis’ smile-scowls into angry-scowls. Zero expressionism, mostly just prune-faced glares that never show a reaction to haunting events or *murderous* actions (except a therapist discussion where Kersey appears “happy” having just bulleted away his problems). Willis’ emotive range is that of an unimpressed grandparent sleepwalking through reality, like some militant automaton who hasn’t rebooted its empathy programming. Supporting actors Vincent D’Onofrio (brother Frank), Dean Norris and multiple underworld thugs scream into Willis’ face as if to demand some kind of character display – never to be appeased.
“Matt, this is an action film – stop being such a snob.” I get that, too. Both Carnahan and Roth have ground pulverization, bodily harm and gunsmoke together in infinitely more enjoyable ways. Death Wish is just neither too exaggerated to be taken as satirical sensationalization nor underplayed enough to show the moral dilemmas caused when *hunting human prey.* Intended or not, this is a misguided action romp that celebrates vigilantism and gangland authority – no fun to be had in one-off Kersey death lines or fake internet videos.
Death Wish is a dogmatic reflection of our times, only not in the ways you’d hope. Paul Kersey’s renegade shooting spree is made into a victorious challenging of “useless” judicial processes unfit to protect civilized masses – a man bettering himself with gun-in-hand. Eli Roth has never been known for “burying the lede,” yet this negligent cowboy act redefines heavy-handed deliveries and reading the proverbial room with epic disregard. Practical effects are on-point and Roth does his best to blacken tension, but there’s never a moment where Mr. Kersey feels in danger or overpowered (thanks to Willis’ “I’m here, let’s shoot” vibe). In the end, it’s hardly an “action” film and more a zombie-shuffling assassination parade that misses grindhouse targets that sit untagged fifty yards downrange.
Quite simply, it’s impossible to “enjoy” a film that makes you feel even worse about the society we live in – especially when it’s so gobsmackingly unaware itself.
Death Wish is so misguided it's somehow less subtle than The Boondock Saints.