This review contains slight spoilers.
Death Wish, which is both adapted from Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel and remakes the 1974 film starring Charles Bronson, is an ugly film for ugly people. It’s made by a director, Eli Roth, whose entire career has been based on fear of the Other: fear of foreign countries (Hostel and its sequel), fear of women (Knock Knock), and fear of people different from us (The Green Inferno). While the novel Death Wish was a warning against vigilante justice and the 1974 film made a few token stabs in that direction, Roth’s film revels in it and clearly paints Paul Kersey, the surgeon turned vigilante now played by Bruce Willis, as some sort of superhero worthy of our applause and respect.
In other words, this Death Wish is an NRA member’s wet dream, not to mention a perfect film for the supposedly carnage-wracked America that exists in the poisoned imagination of the pathetic would-be bully in the White House. And it comes, tone deaf and hysterical, just weeks after 17 people were mowed down in a school shooting and the only response that the Idiot-in-Chief can muster up is to suggest arming teachers (one of whom barricaded himself in a Georgia classroom and started shooting earlier this week). Death Wish doesn’t even work as exploitation, because it’s polished and certainly well-made; it lacks the sleazy low-budget feel that lets true exploitation off the hook most of the time.
Willis, who seems barely awake throughout the film, is an accomplished surgeon who’s working in the ER one night when his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) and daughter Jordan (Camila Morone) are attacked in their suburban mansion in Evanston, Illinois, victims of a burglary gone wrong. Lucy is killed while Jordan is left in a coma (she is not sexually assaulted as in the original, although it’s implied that one of the burglars is after that). Willis’ grief-stricken Paul, who seems to have no particular stance or opinions politically in the film before this, leaves the case in the hands of two detectives (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise–an African-American woman who is Roth’s one sop to inclusion in the film). Then an accomplice to the burglars comes into his ER–and he realizes that he doesn’t need the police to handle this anymore.
Once Kersey gets a taste for blood and begins his shooting spree, Roth lets his worst instincts as a filmmaker take over. There’s never any question about whether Kersey’s actions are justified; the Norris and Elise characters pay lip service to the idea (along with a montage that primarily features Chicago right-wing “shock jock” Mancow Muller and middle-of-the-road Sirius/XM talk host Sway) but the movie is with Kersey all the way, reaching its nadir in a brutal sequence in an auto shop where he tracks down and viciously tortures one of the burglars to obtain the identity of their leader before letting a car fall on the guy’s head and splatter his brains on the floor.
No one can say that Kersey’s anger isn’t understandable, and none of us can predict our feelings in the same situation. The idea of seeing the person who killed one’s spouse and left one’s child gravely injured put to death would probably cross the mind of even the most devout pacifist. But the danger of taking matters into one’s own hands–opening the door to a lawless, chaotic (and no doubt NRA-approved) society where everyone is packing and “good guys” mow down “bad guys” in the street–is what keeps that from happening. There is a quick, fleeting scene involving a copycat vigilante who tries to emulate Kersey, but it’s gone again just as fast so that we can get back to rooting for our “good guy.”
And make no mistake, people will root for him: the bloodlust in the audience at the screening last night was palpable and disturbing. No one, least of all the filmmakers, seemed concerned much about the consequences of Kersey’s actions, especially because for him, there are none, save for a cut on his hand and a groove in his shoulder where he’s grazed by a bullet, the only time he’s hit even though a fusillade is pumped at him at least twice in the film. He even escapes the “punishment” meted out to Bronson at the end of the original film, although he’s certainly set up for Death Wish 2.
As mentioned earlier, Willis seems as comatose as his screen daughter when he’s not brandishing a weapon, while Norris and Elise are there to provide little more than half-hearted comic relief. As Kersey’s brother, Vincent D’Onofrio is supposed to act as some sort of moral sounding board for his sibling, but his pleas for Kersey to stop his rampage are never convincing enough. Roth manages to wring some suspense out of a few sequences, but the glee with which he approaches the material ultimately makes the whole film curdle.
If this review seems more political than most, you’re damn right it is: Death Wish is a vision of America that I don’t want to see and I’m not afraid to say that. It’s also not the America we live in right now (violent crime has been on the decline for decades). As for the people who empathize with the movie, too bad they’re not smart enough to realize that letting lawless assassins like Paul Kersey roam the land, with no respect for law, order, or due process, will only end up creating the exact society that the NRA says we need to protect ourselves from. That’s the real death wish.
Death Wish is out in theaters Friday, March 2.