Death Wish – Review


Perhaps it is the prevalence of gun violence and school shootings that made audiences rethink about slapping down money to see Eli Roth’s Death Wish starring Bruce Willis. If that were the case, then why were viewers seemingly okay with Keanu Reeves as a vengeful assassin? We’ll get to that in a second.

Like it or not we have a remake to a 1970s vigilante movie. I don’t know anyone who was opining the need for a Death Wish remake. We already got something similar a decade ago with Kevin Bacon going full-tilt in James Wan’s Death Sentence. Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel spawned a five-film franchise starring Charles Bronson to which, I might add, totally ignored its anti-vigilantism message. Roth follows suit, offering hoo-rah prosody (in the form of blood, bodies, and bullets) sure to be enjoyed by those who think taking the law into your own hands is a good idea.

Garfield’s novel was a written response to the deterioration of New York. Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese may have romanticized the filth of the Big Apple with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1978), but his actions were a direct result of his experience in Vietnam and chronic insomnia. Garfield’s protagonist, Paul Benjamin, is a CPA whose decorous life is upturned when his wife and daughter are victims of a mugging. The wife dies and his daughter is in a vegetative state. The original movie had Paul Kersey as a Manhattan architect whose wife is fatally injured and daughter raped at the hands of three muggers. Later he is gifted a revolver which he uses while walking long stretches looking for violent criminals.

The remake is similar in approach. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) is now an accomplished surgeon. The setting of New York has been changed to Chicago which is appropriate considering the amount of murders committed by guns weekly. His wife is murdered and daughter assaulted during a home invasion, and the investigating detectives are swimming in cases to find the assailants in quick fashion.

Rather than concede, Paul becomes infuriated and takes the law into his own hands. So begins a bloody crusade of mortally punishing those who commit crimes. With the advent of social media and social commentary Paul, who is dubbed the Grim Reaper, becomes an ongoing topic of discussion, his actions debated among those with an audience and access to a microphone.

Aside from the contemporary setting and media hand-wringing, Death Wish fails at being anything more than a foolish tale of revenge. Joe Carnahan received credit for the screenplay despite none of his dialogue making it into the film. One wonders if the writer/director of Narc and Smokin’ Aces tried to stay close to the original source material.

Bruce Willis redefined action cinema with Die Hard (1988). Thirty years later he is stuck in a cycle where he’s rarely asked to truly perform, continuously playing a super-inflated version of his famous John McClane character. He can’t even be convincing as Paul Kersey family man. This hurts because we are seeing Bruce Willis gunning down bad guys while thinking of McClane. I can only imagine what William H. Macy would have done in the role. Can you imagine Jerry Lundegaard (Fargo) or Frank Gallagher (Shameless) becoming unhinged and turning vigilante?

Now back to Keanu. Why are some viewers willing to accept his vengeful assassin character John Wick? I think it stems from his history. Wick is a reformed killer that is thrust back into the life when his terminally ill wife dies and her last gift to him, a dog, is murdered by the son of a Russian mob boss. Whereas Paul Kersey is a good man who turns vigilante, Wick is a bad man turned good that must now kill again as retribution. Wick gains our sympathy while Kersey loses morality. Simple as that.

How poorly conceived is Eli Roth’s Death Wish? The songs that bookend the feature are The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” and AC/DC’s overused “Back in Black.” Both are good songs and yet are arbitrarily used with no rhyme or reason.

Director: Eli Roth
Writer: Joe Carnahan, based on Brian Garfield’s novel
Notable Cast: Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise, Elisabeth Shue

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