Death Wish, the Eli Roth-directed remake of the 1974 film—both were adapted from the same novel source material by Brian Garfield—could not have come at a poorer time. That is what many reviews of this film are reporting, and, yes, it is unfortunate timing for this film release.
That said, there is a sect of the American public that would likely champion the efforts of Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis), the surgeon-turned-vigilante who satiates bloodthirst against Chicago-based thugs after his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and daughter (Camila Morrone) are attacked during a home invasion.
The downside for both the outraged and the impassioned is that Death Wish 2018 plays best as a gallows comedy. Even at that, it suffers substantially.
The Death Wish story is, by its very nature, that of the exploitation film genre. A gruesome act of violence begets more violence begets more violence. It is over the top and crude and leaves no room for imagination when it comes to plot, character, or thematic substance.
To Roth’s credit, he takes this exploitation film spirit and injects a dash of modernity into it. In very Eli Roth fashion, violence and gore and torture porn set pieces are amped up in this revamped edition. He and writer Joe Carnahan do a fairly good job at keeping the spirit of the original Death Wish. The film is A-points-to-B simplistic and filled with fast-paced action.
The problem with this is that there doesn’t really seem to be a place for theatrical release B-movie action films of this ilk. Not in today’s industry, at least. Even if there was, Death Wish never manages to justify why a remake of this source material was necessary in the first place.
The film is self-aware, to an extent. There are bits of nodding humor in which Carnahan and Roth recognize the inherent silliness of the premise. While all this really does is undercut the original film that it is trying to revamp, if the duo had doubled down on this comedic conceit than the film may have succeeded as a tongue-in-cheek homage to exploitation films a la Grindhouse.
Instead, they make the story of Kersey a dramatic one. Carnahan’s script focuses heavily on the family dynamic early on in the film, baiting us to be sympathetic of Dr. Kersey when his loved ones are hospitalized.
Again, perhaps this could have worked. Putting a more dramatic bent on an exploitation premise may have made for a close-knit thriller about one man trying to find solace through vengeance. But the film doesn’t convince us of Kersey’s pursuit. It introduces boilerplate gang members and police detectives to keep his fate in question. However, we never feel the motivation to reconcile grief through violence in Willis’ performance. He is merely a stoic gunman stalking the streets at night in a hoodie.
The film continuously clues us back in on the utterly basic theme of vigilantism through Chicago-based radio and television announcers providing commentary. With this chorus repeating over and over, the film beats us over the head with something it never needs to explicitly address in the first place. We don’t need a faux clip from Sway in the Morning to pop up to remind us that the vigilante in the film exists in a gray moral area.
Death Wish is better than the original film, but that isn’t saying much. Both are superficial exploitation action films with little to chew on. The characters are surface-level, the plot is scattered and sparse, and the subject matter is ultimately thin. At least Roth mixes up his action scenes so as to not make a repetitive gun-down picture that Michael Winner’s 1974 film was.
Death Wish: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)