FILM REVIEW – DEATH WISH. With Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise, Elisabeth Shue. Written by Joe Carnahan. Directed by Eli Roth. Rated R for strong, bloody violence and language throughout. 107 minutes.
For a movie directed by a notoriously smirky provocateur and featuring one of Hollywood’s few outspoken right-wingers running around the ghetto in a hoodie shooting brown people, what’s most shocking about Eli Roth’s DEATH WISH remake is just how lame and instantly forgettable it is. Twenty-four hours after seeing the film it has already blessedly begun to fade from my memory. You’d think such a morally repugnant gun-nut masturbation fantasy would at least be worth getting worked up about, but the movie’s so lugubrious and wheezy it’s almost pitiable. (I said almost.)
One can’t say the same for unrepentant schlockmeister Michael Winner’s 1974 original, which despite spawning four increasingly inane sequels still retains a crude kick. The crasser, bastard cousin to “Dirty Harry” and “Straw Dogs” became a cultural touchstone for its blunt-force depiction of Charles Bronson’s liberal pacifist Paul Kersey turning vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter raped in a New York City gone all to hell. Based on what I am told is a considerably more thoughtful novel by Brian Garfield, the film was at one point to be directed by Sidney Lumet with Jack Lemmon playing the lead.
From what I can ascertain, it was the Bronson/Winner team that threw out Garfield’s original ending – in which Kersey goes mad, eventually gunning down unarmed kids just because he doesn’t like the looks of them – and the author has spent subsequent years attempting to distance himself from their adaptation, even writing a sequel called “Death Sentence” to try and clarify his intentions.
Unfortunately, this remake is probably not gonna let Garfield sleep any easier. Scripted by Joe Carnahan, who has spent a career trafficking in macho bullshit from the sublime (“The Grey”) to the ridiculous (everything else he’s ever done), the new “Death Wish” strips whatever shreds of ambiguity existed in the original film in favor of a ghoulishly ill-timed NRA manifesto and a stroke-job for its washed-up star.
An indolent Bruce Willis stars as Kersey, no longer an architect but now a well-to-do surgeon in Chicago who goes from saving lives to taking them after his wife (Elisabeth Shue) is murdered and his daughter (Camila Morrone) beaten into a coma by home invaders one night while he’s at work. In the most squeamishly-handled scene of “Hostel” director Roth’s otherwise lurid filmography, the movie not only skimps on the “Death Wish” tradition of gratuitous sexual assault but also discreetly cuts away to an exterior shot so that we don’t have to see the mayhem. (I briefly wondered if Ron Howard had been called in to direct some reshoots.)
Bronson’s Kersey — inspired in the original film by a gaudy Wild West theme park attraction slyly suggesting America’s addiction to outlaw myths — was on an endless, existential quest killing mad muggers in the night, every night, because he knew nobody would ever find the scum that destroyed his family. There’s a helplessness inherent even in the fantasy. But here Bruce Willis winds up obstructing the police investigation just so he can play detective and kill the bastards himself, going from everyday doctor to gunslinging superhero in the course of a cringe-inducing training montage set to AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
It’s embarrassing to watch the 62-year-old Willis putter around doing badly-faked stunts to classic rock while spitting out cheeseball one-liners that would have been rejected by “Eraser”-era Schwarzenegger. It wasn’t too long ago that “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Looper” offered the tantalizing possibility of an older Bruce Willis segueing into complex character roles, but he’s instead squandered the intervening years cashing paychecks for cameos in generic direct-to-VOD swill – films with which “Death Wish” would be presumably already be keeping company on your cable box were it not for the title’s brand name recognition and the fallacy of sunk costs.
Willis is atrocious in this film. He looks uncharacteristically frail and vainly preens through his scenes with an entirely inappropriate air of entitlement and a disinterest verging on somnambulism. Confoundingly, Kersey has been given a doting, deadbeat brother played by Vincent D’Onofrio who has nothing whatsoever to do with the story and provides an emotional support system that makes our protagonist’s vigilante turn even more improbable. Bronson was isolated, man. Going it all alone was part of his appeal.
Constant references to D’Onofrio’s money problems and his typically twitchy performance keep suggesting some sort of twist in which it will be revealed that the brother was perhaps in part responsible for the home invasion, but nothing of this sort ever arises. (Maybe Ron Howard cut that out, too.)
“Death Wish” was originally scheduled for release last October, but pulled after the Las Vegas massacre and moved up to what turns out to be an even worse time for this sort of pistol porn. There’s an incredibly queasy scene set in a chain sporting goods store (called Jolly Roger’s so I guess we’re not supposed to think it’s Dick’s) where a hot twenty-something blonde clerk and her delightful décolletage run through all the awesome armaments, joking with Willis about how easy it is to buy them.
It’s tone-deaf and gross, but also characteristic of this exhausted, lumbering relic of a movie, which somehow already feels even more dated than a film made 44 years ago.•••
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice and WBUR. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.