Eli Roth’s Death Wish is a remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson thriller of the same name. In it, a surgeon embarks on a mission for justice after an attack on his family. Starring Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio and Elisabeth Shue.
The recent career of Bruce Willis is, I think, more morally reprehensible than the urban vigilantism he practices in Eli Roth’s Death Wish. I just checked his Wikipedia page, which was a horrifying five minutes. There’s a moment in this film, in which Willis’s character, Paul Kersey, a trauma surgeon turned mass murderer, uses his extensive knowledge of the human anatomy to cause a dude incomparable pain. That’s a bit like how it felt to watch, say, Extraction.
Then again, Bruce Willis doesn’t really star in those execrable low-budget actioners, he just lends his creased walnut head for the DVD cover and sleepwalks through ten minutes of screen time. He’s really, properly in Death Wish – I just wish somebody had told him. He plays Kersey as a surgeon who seems more anaesthetized than his patients.
This is a remake, by the way. The 1974 original starred Charles Bronson, and was based on an uncompromisingly dark novel by Brian Garfield about a lifelong liberal family man who went nuts after an attack on his family that he was unable to prevent. The author hated the film, as did most critics and cultural commentators of the time, in no small part because they all felt it tacitly endorsed the bonkers right-wing DIY-justice that Garfield had sought to criticise. He hated it so much he wrote a sequel to wash the taste out of his mouth, but meanwhile, throughout the 80s and 90s there would be four more Death Wish sequels, all starring Bronson, all made by different companies, and all increasingly embodying every little thing Garfield hated about the first one. Which is quite funny, if you ask me.
I dread to think what Garfield would think about this most recent attempt at adapting the story. The 70s version didn’t have a point of view worth having, but at least it had one. Roth’s effort (apparently substantially rewritten from a Joe Carnahan screenplay) has no such thing. Typically for the filmmaker, it veers wildly between all the tones and perspectives that he finds funny or interesting at any given moment, mistakes referencing loaded political topics with actually examining them, and lacks any sense of cohesion or commitment. It’s a dull, cowardly game of Fox News talking-point bingo, only with no prizes because it didn’t make any money at the Box Office.
Willis is miscast to a comical degree, both as the smirking, pacifistic suburbanite we meet at the start of the film, and the gunslinging gangland executioner he becomes after a botched robbery leaves his wife dead and his daughter in a coma. To give a sense of how this plays out, you should know that we see Kersey learn how to strip and reassemble a Glock 17 by watching a YouTube tutorial, in a montage that contrasts with his daily life as a surgeon set to AC/DC’s “Back in Black”.
None of this makes thematic or even narrative sense, but the expectation of either might be a bit ambitious, as Death Wish is also a film that’s main attempt at contemporary cultural critique is to have Kersey be lionized as a viral sensation dubbed “The Grim Reaper” whose merits are discussed by real-life Chicago-area media personalities. This is so dumb and potentially combustible that you might assume it’s intentional, but to do so would suggest than Eli Roth is a smarter, more aware filmmaker than every shred of available evidence seems to suggest.
It might have occurred to you, as it did to me, that there has never been a worse time to release a film in which a white, uptown dude cleans up the inner city by throwing on a hoody and shooting people in the street. Luckily, Death Wish is too gutless and thematically incoherent to make that element properly offensive, which you might as well if you’re going to remake Death Wish, but I digress. What Roth elects to do instead is wheel out a succession of black people (mainly women) for Kersey to “rescue” so that they can then vocalise their moral approval of his actions. It’s hardly a nuanced thesis on the social unease between lily-white suburbs and the more racially panoramic inner city, but it’s easier to explain than the post-apocalyptic criminal hellscape that for some reason exists just down the road from Kersey’s opulent family home.
Roth likes to do this – feign towards edginess, but write himself a way to swat aside any accusations that he might actually be doing what he pretends to. To wit: “Well, if Black Ladies #4 and #5 think the Grim Reaper is doing the Lord’s work, I’m covered.” But it goes the other way, too. Whenever he finds an interesting or at least well-executed viewpoint, such as the one here that pokes fun at the absurdity of upscale hobbyist gun culture, he finds a way to undermine it, such as having Kersey return later to prepare for the fist-pumping lock-and-load climax without a scrap of irony.
There’s a part of me that wishes Roth didn’t bother with all his get-out-of-jail-free cards and just made a movie that was gloriously, unashamedly horrible, because that would have been more interesting to write about, and it wouldn’t have done any serious cultural damage because nobody went to see it anyway. But having all but one of the villains be white, for instance, just feels like a reflexive defence against criticism, which a true auteur filmmaker of the type Roth pretends to be wouldn’t want or need. And a dull, disposable movie like Death Wish could have used that kind of misguided arrogance to really be about something other than getting a rise out of critics and audiences. And it’s so bland it doesn’t even manage that.