IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 107 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Paul Kersey lives with his wife Lucy and college-bound daughter Jordan, and works as a trauma surgeon at a Chicago hospital. On the evening that the Kerseys are to have a birthday dinner, three masked men invade their home while Paul is at work. Lucy is shot dead and Jordan falls into a coma. Outraged that the police are unable to solve the crime, Paul becomes a vigilante stalking the city streets to deliver his own brand of justice and to find the men who ambushed his family….
I don’t think you have to be an ultra-right wing gun nut to get some vicarious pleasure from watching the likes of Charles Bronson blowing away scumbags. Many say that vigilante movies appeal to our worst instincts – but then you could take that argument to violence in movies in general, and I personally believe such films satisfy a primal need, a need that we can exorcise without actually going out into the streets with a gun ready to shoot somebody. Eli Roth’s remake of Bronson’s classic Death Wish [a project that was once going to star Sylvester Stallone] has unsurprisingly been attacked for the timing of its release soon after the terrible Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, though I’m not sure that the critical response would have been much different if that incident hadn’t occurred. After all, the original was castigated for its supposed outlook as well, and that was back in 1974 when critics didn’t tend to follow each other like sheep in the fashion they often do today. I think it’s more to the point to say that we didn’t need nor want [though the fairly low budget film has already made its budget back] this picture not so much because of a tragic news event, but because the 1974 film has been imitated so much that a direct remake would seem redundant – though Roth’s movie actually doesn’t follow it very much – it’s almost a different story with just a few of the same elements, even if it’s still a basic template that we’ve seen over and over again. So despite having more of an air of redundancy about it, does the first real attempt by Roth to break out of his comfort zone still satisfy as a good old fashioned revenge thriller that will satisfy the blood lust and sense of righteousness, or does it just fall flat?
It doesn’t really get off on the right foot by asking us to imagine Bruce Willis as a doctor – yes, I know medical practitioners can come in all shapes and sizes just like everyone else, but I just can’t buy Willis here. And it doesn’t help that – and I’ll get one of the weakest aspects of the film out the way now – Willis just doesn’t look like he’s making much of an effort, sometimes seeming rather bored. His Paul Kersey is allowed far more time to look miserable than Bronson’s, but his acting, apart from two or three moments that stick out because of his lacklustre performing in the rest of the film, doesn’t allow us to feel his pain in the way that we should. It’s a shame, because Willis, despite still probably best known as John MacClaine, can be really good when he commits himself. It doesn’t help that his Paul has even less of a background than Bronson’s – we learn that he was constantly beaten up by his father and fought back but always lost, and that’s it. When Stallone was going to do this film, his character would have been a cop who’d never used a gun and is therefore thrown into a moral dilemma when exacting his revenge. They should have stuck with that idea. Some may also find it disappointing that Elisabeth Shue, still looking lovely, is given the thankless role of the wife who gets killed 20 or so minutes in, though she certainly shines in for the small amount of time she’s on screen.
There’s a slightly longer preamble to the horror that we are expecting here, but the sequence in which mother and daughter are attacked is certainly a good one. Paul’s brother Frank asks him to lend some money to pay off a debt to which Paul reluctantly agrees, then Frank gives the valet, Miguel, the keys to their car and joyfully tells him that Paul has “got the money“. Miguel goes to pick the car up, but also take pictures of Paul’s address from their car. A few nights later, three masked men invade the Kerseys household while Paul is at work, and both the build-up [with its creepy first reveals of one intruder in a mirror and one on the side of the screen as the camera pulls back to reveal him] and action are well handled by Roth – yes, he’s mostly a workmanlike filmmaker [whom I wish was a much better one because I like the guy and the enthusiasm for movies and movie making that he seems to show], but he does know what he’s doing and there are always several sequences in his films which he really seems to focus on and make work very well. One thing that pleasantly surprised me was that there was no rape, just a bit of sexual humiliation that’s cut very short. Maybe I’m getting old but I’ve certainly seen rape as an excuse for the wrecking of vengeance rather too many times now, even if I’ll defend I Spit On Your Grave [original, forget that remake!] till the day I die.
Anyway, mum is killed, daughter is comatose, and poor husband wants the police to find the culprits but they seem to be slacking. Paul in this version is allowed more time to become the vigilante. I would imagine that a split screen montage showing Paul at work alongside Paul at home with the gun he’s nicked from somebody he’d operated on, set to AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’, is one scene that has offended some of the more vocally liberal critics, though I don’t think that Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan are really trying to say how good it is that one can buy a gun in the US, they’re just using the idea to propel the story forward. In fact I’m sure they’re really trying to say anything politically. It is notable that the Bronson version had Paul throw up after he’s first shot someone. Willis just can’t seem to sleep after the event. On the other hand I would say that this Death Wish tries to be unrealistically politically correct in one aspect. Despite taking place in a city in which non-white people greatly outnumber whites, there are slightly more white villains than non-white ones, which seems silly if you think about it – not of course that this has stopped some idiots from some calling the movie racist – but then we live in a world when anyone who criticises Black Panther [aka One Of The Best Films Ever Made] online is castigated and also often called a racist. In such a climate, the makers of Death Wish really couldn’t win whatever they did, but I do wish that the film had debated the idea of vigilante justice more than just showing various folk on the radio talking about it.
In the end, it’s mostly just really simplistic stuff, and there’s something not unappealing about that. Paul begins to walk the streets in a hoodie [not the first time Willis has looked kind of cool in a hoodie] killing various low-lifes, as well as hunting down Lucy’s murderers, totally missing one of the interesting aspects of the original which was that the killers are never seen again after they’ve invaded the Kersey home. There’s a bit of the expected splatter and a few mildly creative kills [you probably won’t forget the line “I’m not going to kill you, Jack is” that proceeds an especially memorably messy death], and of course being a Roth film there’s a torture scene. It’s been cut for its UK release, and actually you can tell because a line of dialogue seems to go unfinished and cut to another line. The most wince-inducing scene might be a fairly novel method of bullet removal. Roth has resisted the temptation to ramp up the action for a modern audience, keeping it to 70’s-style brief displays of gun play and a few brawls. There’s a new final act, probably inspired by the likes of Straw Dogs and Fear, that doesn’t quite take the film to another level of tension but is reasonably satisfactory all the same. On Paul’s trail is Police Detective Kevin Raines, an especially good example of the dim movie cop, though Dean Norris in this role compares very poorly to the wonderful character that Vincent Gardinia essayed in the original movie, while even the usually excellent Vincent D’Onofrio isn’t too interesting as Paul’s brother.
Some moments for genuine drama and emption are wasted, like the telling of some terrible news to someone, a scene which cuts away ridiculously early. Matters fail to wrap up in believable or ironic manner. This Death Wish isn’t at all a bad movie, and if you’re a die hard fan of this sort of thing then you’ll definitely find some enjoyment out of it. I certainly plead guilty to that. I feel that it’s certainly a better film than many of our politically motivated critics consider it to be. At times it is well crafted, Roth certainly knowing how to pace a film and how to stage exciting bits and pieces with camerawork that is busy but never degenerating into shakycam nonsense. I’d like to see him do a full-blown, balls to the wall action movie like a Fast And Furious movie, because I genuinely think he’ll be good at it. But he and company don’t really seem to have tried very hard with this particular effort, don’t appear to have attempted whatsoever to make it stand out – something that can’t help but make it seem like yet another pointless remake that will probably be almost forgotten soon.