By BRYAN YENTZ
Starring Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio and Elisabeth Shue
Directed by Eli Roth
Written by Joe Carnahan
So let me get this straight, we’ve got a disciple of horror (Eli Roth) directing a remake of the revenge-classic DEATH WISH. . . And it’s being written by Joe-SMOKIN’ ACES-Carnahan?! Sign me up! Unfortunately the fantasy of those two titans crafting an action epic is better than the end result. Did I hate it? No. But my shoulders got tired of shrugging.
When the 1974 original was released, it was met with toxic reception. . . Much like this remake is receiving now. It appears that in dire times, people only want superheroes that are invincible and always save the world with zero consequence. Having humans attempt heroics via un-super means is apparently less appreciated. And God forbid a revenger use a gun. . .
What many fail to understand about these films is that they’re just that—films. Yes, there are many a controversial instance of gunplay/killings occurring, but I won’t bog this review down with a thesis as to the differences between reality and film. DEATH WISH—like the original—is supposed to be pure cathartic escapism. Good guy versus bad guys. Yes, there is firepower used herein, but usage of a ballistic does not automatically connotate a deal signed with the devil. Just as the times/reviews of yesteryear, many are making quite a politically-charged attempt to demean this movie, because it makes their own stance appear better; more heroic. You’re anti-gun? That’s fine. This is a movie about a guy that isn’t. That’s the fun of storytelling. While viewers may have their own opinions, the characters smacked against the silver screen are allowed to have different ones. And in DEATH WISH’s case, it does not (nor did the original) state that vigilantism is the necessary action to crimes committed against a victim. No, the simple idea is/was a question: what would happen if ONE man couldn’t hold that rage back and fully gave into it. The original author, Brian Garfield, even stated that the entire narrative was based around his experiences as a victim and that his novel was a less-reasoned, more primal response to it—what if you just took matters into your own hand?
That’s not to say anyone should do what Bruce Willis does lackadaisically for almost two hours, but again, this is a fictional movie and if viewers can’t separate these lines themselves then they shouldn’t be watching flicks knowing they’ll be offended so as to have a larger chip on their shoulder. Honestly, if there’s one thing to be offended about at all with Eli Roth’s remake, it should be at just how damn boring/conventional it all is.
Retreading the same worn ground as before, Paul Kersey (a miscast Bruce Willis) scowls his way through Chicago’s underbelly in search of evildoers, after his own wife (Elizabeth Shue) is murdered and his daughter hospitalized. With the police finding it impossible to track the killer(s) and hopelessness becoming all the more severe, Paul assumes control by taking violent action. After an initial incident involving a drive-by shooting, Paul gains a newfound bloodlust and (just as before) seeks revenge through the killing of any murderer/criminal—not just those who took the life of his wife.
There are about four worthwhile moments that, when put together, equal approximately 5 seconds in length. These incredibly brief bouts of violence are the only sequences wherein Roth and Carnahan seemed to have any fun with remaking this film. That and maybe it’s the studio’s allotted time for creativity in a picture like this—who knows? For the most part however, we’re left with a long-winded movie that’s not particularly good at the dramatics, structure or the satirizing of gun proponents. In between incredibly short shoot-out sequences, it’s brooding Willis sleepwalking his way through the role. When that’s not going on, we’re treated to bumbling cops who seem like they accidentally wandered off their own production and stumbled into this one. They’re too much of a juxtaposition with their comedic tone/delivery and by the end—don’t even matter. Spending less time on the limited attempt at a police procedural and more time on the action would have helped. But then, there’s also a third tier consisting of media responses to Paul’s blood-spilling shenanigans (deemed the “Grim Reaper” by news outlets). It’s the remake’s attempt at being political without really being political and once again, could have either been removed or at the very least, filed down. This version of DEATH WISH tries so hard to straddle the line and keep all parties content that it fully loses its own personality in the process.
What’s worse is that the villains pose zero threat and the “main” antagonist (if you can call him that) doesn’t even rear his slick-backed head until the last ten minutes or so. Even then he’s just a lame pipsqueak that completely lacks intimidation and goes down without much of a fight. And that’s another issue with this reimagining, it completely lacks audacity. Where the original was realistically vile in its mercilessness, this adaptation consistently holds back. Even the home-invasion sequence that incites Paul’s fury is devoid of tension, and oddly enough—torment. The invaders go through a box-checking of bad-guy movements and even more questionably—the bullet that kills Paul’s wife is handled off-screen. This isn’t being mature (by not showing it), it’s emotionally removing the audience from the impact of her death. Is this incident horrible? Yes, absolutely. But does the movie successfully make one actually feel it—absolutely not. The original handled the randomness of the home-invasion in such a vile way that I empathized fully with Charles Bronson’s moral deterioration. The entire thing is just going through blasé, studio-mandated motions so as to weakly justify Paul’s journey of “meh” carnage. And you know what? I might be okay with this if the action delivered. . . Unfortunately I already addressed that.
And about Willis. . . He was the wrong choice for this role.
We all know him as a badass. So seeing him go from stern-face badass to frowning badass is just par for the course. Unlike Bronson’s depiction of a family-man being pushed to ever-escalating acts of violence (and was a turn for his career at the time), Willis is already known for this sort of thing and can only really act in one capacity now—Bruce Willis. Because of this, there’s no real evolution to his character and I never felt as though he was actually sad or remorseful (or hell, even trying), I simply felt he was “feeling” these ways because a script told him to at several points.
Add in seemingly sinister plot points that are hinted at but never come to fruition and the great Vincent D’Onofrio in a role that goes nowhere—and you have this film. Just more issues that amount to yet another question: really, what was the point of remaking this?
The original DEATH WISH isn’t on any of my favorite lists, but it served its grim purpose upon its initial release. All of the ingredients were here for this reimagining to be a mindlessly entertaining homage to grind house. It can be chocked up to the times, censorship, the studio not having faith in the product—all of the above. Whatever it is, Eli Roth’s DEATH WISH is just an assembly-line movie put out to fill a gap in an atelier’s weak season. This version of DEATH WISH is nowhere near as terrible as some are making it out to be, but it is incredibly forgettable. So maybe that’s worse.
Instead, go watch 2007’s far superior (and a personal favorite of mine) DEATH SENTENCE.