'Death Wish': Film Review

Makes its predecessor look philosophical by comparison.

Bruce Willis steps in for Charles Bronson in Eli Roth's remake of the vigilante fantasy.

Michael Winner's 1974 Death Wish, sometimes laughable and sometimes offensive, did have one undeniable virtue: It spoke of its time and place, a New York City terrorized by crime and on the verge of collapse. In reusing some of that film's ingredients (and, more importantly, its name), Eli Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan could have done the same thing, manifesting the rages and fears that afflict the country we live in right now. Instead, they offer a cheap and dishonest Death Wish that (references to social media notwithstanding) is interchangeable with get-tough knockoffs that have flooded cinemas for decades. Though armed with enough gore and pandering violence to enjoy some success with moviegoers who haven't yet been burned by star Bruce Willis' many recent flops, this generic attempt at a franchise reboot deserves to be killed.

The lies start before viewers get inside the theater. Though the killing spree we're about to see has nothing to do with self-defense and everything to do with generalized anger, the film's poster goads us by putting the words "How far would you go to protect your family" above the title. There's no question mark, because it isn't a question. What, you wouldn't stalk the streets gunning down thugs? Guess we know what kind of dad you are.

This revision of the story offers Willis' Paul Kersey as a well-off surgeon. This may be slightly more believable than casting Bronson as a paper-pushing real estate developer. But really, you know the movie just put "Dr." in front of Kersey's name so that, after a third-act gunfight, it could show Willis gritting his teeth and stitching up his own nasty wounds.

Kersey is basking in the glow of his perfect family — his daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone), was just accepted to NYU; wife, Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) is about to get her Ph.D. — when his birthday dinner plans are interrupted. He's called in to do a shift at the hospital, leaving Lucy and Jordan to go home instead of to their favorite restaurant. There, the burglars who thought they'd have the house to themselves await. These are not the nihilistic street freaks of the original film (Jeff Goldblum made a regrettable screen debut as their leader), but garden-variety thieves, one of whom is too horny to behave. After he threatens to rape Jordan, the women attempt to escape and both are shot. Lucy is killed; Jordan is left in a coma.

Paul responds appropriately: He grieves his wife, hovers lovingly over his daughter's hospital bed and diligently bugs the two detectives (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) assigned to investigate the crime. While Paul's brother Frank (Vincent D'Onofrio) responds with suspiciously hotheaded outbursts — is the film clumsily trying to make us suspect that Uncle Frank, unemployed and in debt, was involved in the robbery? — Norris' Detective Raines insists that they will catch a break in the case, if only the Kerseys can be patient.

A badly conceived scene with Lucy's father sets Paul to thinking about vigilantism, and soon he's visiting his local gun merchant. The issue of permitting and background checks comes up, and the film makes trenchant observations about our nation's broken gun policy. Just kidding. Paul gets his gun the old-fashioned way, by taking it from a gang-banger in the emergency room. And after a quick training montage, he's ready for action.

He dons a hoodie and goes looking for trouble, far from the cushy part of town where he lives (this remake is set in Chicago, not New York). He witnesses a carjacking and shoots at the perps — wounding them, then walking over to finish them off in cold blood. A bystander films the incident, not catching Paul's face, and news of the "Grim Reaper" goes viral.

Paul's subsequent adventures are engineered to make viewers cheer, not question the wisdom of his mission; and at first they not only have nothing to do with finding his wife's killer, they threaten to get him killed and make his daughter an orphan.

Only via a risible script contrivance does Paul's crime spree eventually point him toward those killers. He begins hunting the men one by one, giving Roth an opportunity or two to indulge his lust for big-screen torture. The one-man investigation starts off wildly improbable and gets worse from there; meanwhile, the mundane shoe-leather work of the actual police detectives is leading toward the conclusion that Paul's the Grim Reaper.

What fodder there may be here for subtext (allusions to Paul's abusive father, for instance) is abandoned before it threatens to actually mean something. Contrast that with the 1974 film (and the novel it was based on), in which a man with conventional left-leaning politics is driven by personal trauma to transform. A time of Trumpist racism, incoherent gun policy, fear of police, etc., would be fertile subjects for mainstream films that use genre metaphors to address real national debates. That's something this Death Wish doesn't even try to be. Something has gone very wrong in Hollywood when one longs for the moral nuance of a Charles Bronson exploitation flick.

Production company: MGM
Distributor: MGM
Cast: Bruce Willis, Vincent D'Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue, Camila Morrone, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise
Director: Eli Roth
Screenwriter: Joe Carnahan
Producer: Roger Birnbaum
Executive producer: Ilona Herzberg
Director of photography: Rogier Stoffers
Production designer: Paul Kirby
Costume designer: Mary Jane Fort
Editor: Mark Goldblatt
Composer: Ludwig Goransson
Casting directors: Mary Vernieu, Marisol Roncali

Rated R, 106 minutes