These are troubled times we live in where debates and conflicts about gun control and the 2nd Amendment dominate the zeitgeist. So, before I go forward with today’s review I’d like to say that I am completely against critics weighing public opinion on a social issue when rating a film. I myself am a centrist and I think we’d all be better off thinking that way and it’s probably better that personal interest stay out of the judgement of a movie’s quality, but when a film decides to work social commentary into its narrative it better pay off. The reason I say this is the gun debate has bled into the movie world this weekend with the unfortunately poorly timed release of the Eli Roth directed remake of the 1974 classic “Death Wish”. Take away its horribly timed release so close to the Florida shootings a few weeks ago and what you get is a pretty average action movie that neither astonishes nor outright disappoints. So, for the sake of this review I’m going to avoid judging it for it’s timing and instead look at it for what it is. Is it more good then bad? Well that’s why I’m here, not to spread my political beliefs but to give my opinions on movies so here’s my review of “Death Wish”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
A modernized version of the 1974 classic starring Charles Bronson that sparked an iconic franchise, “Death Wish” stars Bruce Willis as Dr. Paul Kersey, a surgeon who has the perfect life with a loving family including his wife Lucy (Elizabeth Shue), his daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) and his younger brother Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio). After getting called in on a night the family was supposed to celebrate his birthday, Dr. Kersey leaves his wife and daughter alone only for his home to be invaded by a trio of burglars resulting in Lucy being killed and Jordan being beaten into a coma. As he waits for police in Chicago to solve the case, Dr. Kersey takes matters into his own hands when he comes into the possession of a gun from a patient and starts hunting down lowlifes on the street earning himself the nickname of “the Grim Reaper”. When he finally discovers the men who attacked his family Kersey takes vigilante justice to the next level crossing the line between acceptable revenge and dangerous violence in the process.
This film is all about Bruce Willis, who has settled for bit roles in direct to video releases as of late with his last true quality film being 2012’s “Looper”. As he tries to revitalize his action-icon status Willis’ performance in this movie may not hold a candle to the gritty performance of Charles Bronson in the original “Death Wish”, but in my opinion he’s not that bad really. I mean yeah his portrayal of a man who takes things into his own hands when the police can’t get it done is kind of cheesy in that Bruce Willis-esqe kind of way, but there aren’t a lot of people that can pull it off the way he does. It’s not Willis’ best performance by any stretch of the imagination, lacking emotional depth while also borrowing some of the “attitude” from his past rolls, but take this performance for what it is and it’s not the worst thing on the screen with this movie. Willis demands attention as the central character and while the movie as a whole lacks a lot of heart, as hard as it tries, Willis can still pull off the violent badass persona that made him famous. If you’ve seen Willis before you know what you’re going to get, and he gives you exactly what you want. It’s not a performance that offers anything new or complex, but Willis manages to give us a broken man struggling with a system he feels is ineffective and it’s believable enough that he would take the next step into the dark side of vigilantism that it keeps you engrossed in how it all plays out.
One of the problems with this movie, which I’ll delve into farther down, is the unmemorable cast leaving little else for me to talk to in this section of the review. Most of the characters are brief or unmemorable making them not really worth investing in, but Vincent D’Onofrio seems to be the only person with substantial screen time other than Bruce Willis who is invested in this film and he actually outshines Willis throughout much of the movie. D’Onofrio’s character is well defined, being the younger brother of Willis’ Dr. Kersey and a down-on-his luck unemployed king of sarcasm who asks his brother for money all the time, and as the film progresses we see his character grow in a more positive way in contrast to the destructive tendencies Willis’ character embraces. While one brother self-destructs to a life of vigilantism, the other gets his life back on track and D’Onofrio evolves into a sentimental voice of reason, even being the aggressor towards police inaction at the start before criticizing his brother for taking revenge on his own. D’Onofrio actually adds a lot to his character and to the story in general giving us a much-needed voice of reason to add some heart to a film that fails to provide much of any conscience or awareness of the actions projected on screen. More on that later.
It would be easy to write this movie off if you’re leaning one way or another on the gun control debate, but as I said in the intro I’m keeping politics out of this review, however I won’t keep social commentary out of it and “Death Wish” manages to balance that pretty evenly. Some reviewers have criticized the movie for insulting both sides of the gun debate, but to me that’s worth celebrating. For a film that could certainly be used to provide perspective on a political level concerning the benefits or dangers of guns, “Death Wish” tries to throw jabs at each argument with commentary from Chicago radio show hosts littering the narrative providing contrasting perspectives on the idea of gun violence and vigilante justice. I found this to be an amusing and unexpectedly satisfying aspect of this movie that prevents the story from taking itself too seriously while also making much needed points that could speak to anyone watching the film. “Death Wish” notes the red tape of getting a gun permit but acknowledges many gun shops tend to ignore those rules or see them as ridiculous. It shows an over-the-top commercial for a gun shop that blatantly makes fun of the obsession people have over guns but also doesn’t vilify anyone who sees the 2nd Amendment as an important part of America. I expected this film to pander to one side of the ladder but for me I saw it as a balanced display of the good and bad of America’s gun culture. That allowed me to enjoy the action and the sentiment without feeling like I was watching a politically charged production.
With that said the action in this film is also very satisfying. It’s violent, brutal and fun to watch especially if you go into it expecting escapism over substance because that’s what you get. If you can get past any personal beliefs you might hold and enjoy the escapist quality this is a truly entertaining movie. The gunfights are well choreographed, the faceoffs are epic, and there are numerous thrilling encounters and moments of suspense that do leave you on the edge of your seat especially as Dr. Kersey gets deeper into the depths of his dark and, in many ways, misguided mission of taking vengeance into his own hands. There’s nothing really original about it, but with a movie like this you know it’s all about the action and we get plenty of it. There are few moments where you get to catch your breath and even when you do get a chance to relax from the chaos and carnage there’s always an expectation that that peace won’t last for very long. To that end “Death Wish” never gets boring, but also remains uncomfortable in all the right ways unless your discomfort comes from the abundance of gun violence associated with the story which, if that’s the case, why are you watching this movie? It’s not like the previews showed you anything else…
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
My issues with “Death Wish” are rooted in reality and common sense. My first big complaint is that “Death Wish” lacks a human quality about it. Willis tries to add some emotion to the story but that’s not his forte. Overall the emotionally driven story feels dry saved only by a select few sincere moments that rescue the film from being a totally failure on this front. Most of all however Willis’ Dr. Kersey shows a complete lack of empathy for anyone he targets AND for the people around him in the crossfire. There’s one scene where he decides to take his revenge on one of the men that attacked his family in a nightclub and engages in a shootout with no consideration whatsoever for the people around him. Add in that he kills without mercy, executing people he targets despite his Hippocratic Oath as a doctor and at one point even possibly implies he lets someone die on his table out of spite. How many people died for his revenge? How many people perished in the crossfire that he never ever seems to feel remorse for?
Now all this could be argued as part of Kersey’s delving into the darkness of revenge, but it’s not balanced by any consequences or moral compass from anyone in the film. The police even sympathize with him much of the time and Dr. Kersey never has to pay for the collateral damage or the brutal nature of his attacks even on people who never did HIM harm personally and last I checked killing someone for the sake of killing them, whether their evil or good, is still a crime. How can we route fully for this man? Once you get into the deeper elements of his psyche and sit down and think about it Dr. Kersey is actually a pretty bad person who tries to do right by his family and only his brother, thank God, calls him on it in the film. If you take this film as escapism entertainment then fine, but just know this is all very contrived in the end.
There are moments in the film that make you as the viewer wonder if you would do the same in Dr. Kersey’s shoes but none of this happens as it would in real life. “Death Wish” might be fun to watch but part of that fun is that it’s littered with cliché after cliché from the hero being the only one who seems to dodge bullets to the bad guys giving him a chance to escape instead of just killing him. Then you have times where the characters don’t even die by gunfire, but rather from more out-there methods like a car falling on them or a bowling ball which felt like forced attempts to add some colorful kill scenarios in for spice from out of left field…and again these add nothing to Dr. Kersey’s credibility as a good person. What’s also irritating is that SOMEHOW no one can ever identify a 60-something year old bald white man whose face is completely open for viewing outside of a hoodie and it’s just completely unbelievable that he even gets past his first kill in the film without being arrested. I mean the movie tries to make the cops look stupid and smart at the same time to justify the lack of action against Kersey but this too feels forced and contrived. The result is “Death Wish” has no direction and seems to never want to settle on an identity. Is it all out action? It is social commentary? It is both? I don’t know, you don’t know, Eli Roth doesn’t know and I don’t think anyone else in this movie knows either making it a jumbled experience that brings a lot of fun but only the minimal substance, realism or heart to the screen.
The sad part is these could have added some great moments of depth to the film if done right. What if Kersey was arrested and released? Would he continue on his rampage? What if his brother was arrested instead? What if Kersey learned of someone caught in the crossfire of his own actions? None of this is explored and could have made for great realizations and moments of development for the characters and story. “Death Wish” almost tries to go in this direction when a copycat ends up dead, but Kersey only looks blankly at the screen and then the whole concept is dropped for more violence. “Death Wish” merely touches on concepts that could have made it a much better film and settles for simplicity. There was so much potential to turn this action flick into something deeper and even more significant to the current real life debate at hand despite its poor timing but Eli Roth and the rest on board bring nothing to the table to make memorable or help it stand out. Unlike the original “Death Wish” movies that offer some subtext and make you truly question the lines between right and wrong, this movie just feels wrong. The justification is there, but the consequences are few and far between and as hard as the movie tries to ride the line between social perspectives on its morals it’s hard to make a statement when it feels like your movie and characters have no morals and that the world is just going to let that slide.
“Death Wish” is a fun film and it’s not a bad film, it’s just a flawed film. It’s action at it’s best and if not for the poor timing of its release (which was moved from 2017 out of respect for the Las Vegas shooting victims in the first place) I think more people would enjoy it more than they’d like to admit. “Death Wish” is escapism that brings one of the biggest action stars of all time and puts him back in his wheelhouse reminding us that while Bruce Willis is an imperfect actor he can still do the job. Sadly, it’s also a film that lacks that human element. It doesn’t have near as much heart as the conflict demands and while it tries to make great points about both sides of the gun debate as a piece of action-packed social commentary the lack of consequences and consideration for anyone other than the biggest paid actors on screen prevents “Death Wish” from being anything more than a typical, bland action movie at its core. It doesn’t pander, but it doesn’t own any of the deeper points it tries to make either drowning them out with layers of bullets and bloodshed that, lets face it, was the biggest draw for anyone whose been waiting for this film since it was announced. It’s not better than its predecessors, it’s not a great film, but for what it is it’s fun and I would even go so far as to call it “cool” on numerous levels, but it’s also pretty tasteless in some ways and when it does try to make a statement it falls flat thanks to an unwillingness to truly commit. In the end I’m glad I saw it and it was a fun viewing opportunity that could have been a lot worse and a whole lot better. It’s just what it is really.