Review: Death Wish
There are certain movies that were made at just the right time. Movies like American Beauty and Napoleon Dynamite that were so of their moment that they have no need to exist years after their release. Death Wish, Charles Bronson’s 1974 vigilante justice vehicle that inexplicably spawned four sequels that threw out everything interesting about the original, is one of those movies. Yet here we are more than forty years later with a reboot that takes after the later films in the series. It’s ill-advised and mistimed to say the least, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call anything that happens in Death Wish offensive, I will say it all feels like a massive waste of time.
It’s Chicago based Doctor Paul Kersey’s (Bruce Willis) birthday, and his worst nightmare has come true. While performing surgery, his wife, Joanna (Elisabeth Shue), and daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone) are rushed in with gunshot wounds suffered during a home break in. Joanna dies soon after arriving and Jordan falls into a coma. The cops are overwhelmed and have no leads, and rather than sit and do nothing but worry as his daughter’s health quickly deteriorates, he decides to take the law into his own hands. He procures a gun, trains, and sets off on the hunt for those who broke into his home and killed his wife, stopping to take out other criminals that cross his path along the way.
On the way to the theater for Death Wish, I was listening to a podcast interview with Eli Roth. In the interview, Roth claimed to not want to have rape be a part of the movie as it would be unnecessary. He also claimed that he didn’t want to tell the audience what to think, to lay out a complex situation and leave it up to the audience to decide what they think is right or wrong. He fails on both of these points. Ten minutes into the film, Jordan is nearly raped, and by the end, there is no question how we are supposed to feel. Paul Kersey is the good guy who gets away with countless acts of violence scot free with a smile. His murders are carried out on men we could not possibly side with, caricatures meant to be plugged full of bullet holes with an oddly playful sense of glee. Dueling clips from local radio hosts Sway Calloway and Mancow set up the idea that some people are on Kersey’s side and some aren’t, but it’s no more than lip service. The intent is clear, and if you take Eli Roth at his word, it’s the movie’s biggest problem, along with a confusing tone.
Kersey’s kills range from quick and painless to excruciatingly slow, and they are unquestionably the film’s best quality. Roth just knows how to shoot violence better than most, and there’s one elaborate torture sequence that would have fit in perfectly in a Saw movie. It may look great, but the gratuitous bloodshed feels at odds with the previously mentioned mission statement and the bizarre humor. The jokes feel like they were written for a completely different movie and they never worked once with my audience. As an example, there’s an older cop trying to eat better who takes a bite of a gluten free snack bar and spits it in the trash with a disgusted look on his face, and there’s another running bit where people misspell Kersey’s name, inserting an unnecessary “u”. They are long stretches that barely register as humor and make the entire experience feel childish.
The film’s biggest selling point is that it’s a return to form for Bruce Willis, who’s been treading water in the straight-to-DVD space for some time now. He does give the role his all, convincingly playing the hokey dad as he transfers to killing machine (a process that takes no time at all, taking place during a single montage of gun cleaning and shooting at a road sign to the tune of “Back in Black” by AC/DC, a very relevant and original choice), but the script does him no favors. Even usually dependable character actors Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Norris, and Elisabeth Shue suffer with nothing interesting to say or do. Camila Morrone stands out, but is sidelined for a majority of the film’s time and is therefore not given enough time to develop, which goes for the villains as well.
This movie did not need to be made. This movie should not have been made. Both for myriad social reasons and because it makes no effort to make any statement, artistic or otherwise. There are cheap thrills to be had, but they are severely undercut by grade-school humor delivered by wasted actors. If you’re one clamoring for Bruce Willis to be “back”, this is a start, but I’d suggest waiting for Glass to release next year.