I always admired Death Wish more as an oddity than a genuinely great action picture. It’s a little hard to become invested in a film series known for gratuitous amounts of graphic violence and rape, many times in the same scene. And while the Death Wish remake thankfully avoids become the exploitation mess it could have been, the film is still just as odd for its unusual mix of commentary and comedy amid bullets and blood.
Bruce Willis now plays the role of Paul Kersey, appearing with far less hair on his head, now a Chicago surgeon as opposed to a New York architect. He has to witness day after day multiple patients with gunshot wounds rushed into the ER. It’s draining work, but he can still have fun at his lovely home with his beautiful wife and college-bound daughter. Surely nothing terrible will happen to them because they’re so carefree and all smiles. They’re built up to be such a sugary family that the inevitable beating the wife and daughter receives only occurs after they decide to make a birthday cake for Paul secretly.
I will give Eli Roth credit in that the expected inciting incident that sets off Paul is not as hard to watch as the original. Rather than draw out a long and uncomfortable rape of a mother and daughter that leaves one dead and the other in a coma, the scene is kept tense with the tease for a sexual assault that doesn’t get very far and gunshots quite subtle. That being said, Roth doesn’t disappoint in the rest of the violence that becomes just as cartoonish as it does gory. Blood will splatter, neck cracked, and one unlucky thug has his skull crushed as his brains spill out.
Roth’s film is one that’s hard to love for its seesawing of gritty drama and over-the-top violence. You can probably guess which category he excels at best. When Willis is going on the hunt and making snarky remarks, he’s in his element. When he’s trying to look sad and depressed with contemplating losing his family, however, the heart isn’t there, and his acting becomes downright awkward to watch as he stumbles through his quieter scenes. Almost of mercy, the film is aware enough of these shortfalls and slowly steers the focus away from the dramatic elements. It’s a smart move, but it would have been an even better move if Rothe embraced more of the crazy than the relatable.
Several aspects of Paul’s crusade come with consequences, but they’re rarely explored. There’s no point made in bringing up the dangers of copycat vigilantes that are gunned down in the street if Paul ignores, turning off a news report and then never addressing it again. Why even bother having morning radio debates on the slippery slope of Paul’s revenge spree when they’re just as quickly swept under the rug? Rather than dig deep into these issues or cut them out for the sake of campy violence, Roth decides to dance around them, taunting the audience with his film being culturally relevant, but not really.
And it can’t be ignored how poorly timed this movie was with the current state of arguing about gun control. While the film had reportedly been pushed back because of the Vegas shooting, now it has the uncomfortable awkwardness of coming out after the Parkland shooting. I don’t want to hold that against the film, but it should be noted that this film was pretty much a love letter for the NRA. This film doesn’t just showcase a lot of guns; it loves firearms to a ridiculous degree. When Paul becomes inspired to go out and buy one, he’s greeted in the gun shop by a bouncy blonde that perkily sets him up with a form and dismisses how tough gun safety classes are to pass, reasoning that anyone can qualify. This type of attitude would set off red flags about gun access in Chicago, but all Paul gathers from that visit is “Man, it sure takes a lot of work to get a gun. Better go steal one of a gangster.”
Death Wish has its demographic down for targeting middle-aged Americans who love guns and want to take a bite out of the next generation with their dentures. Willis is a snarky anti-hero who loves shooting young punks, Vincent D’Onofrio is an all-American guy gunning for a union job, Dean Norris is a pursuing detective that thinks gluten-free foods are yucky, and the soundtrack boasts top hits of classic rock. All it’s missing is a Make America Great Again hat, Willis fumbling with a smartphone, and a preachy rant about how lazy millennials are to be the elderly audience movie of the year.
And I honestly would have been okay with this over-the-top presentation if Roth decided to keep this film where it firmly belongs in cartoony gore land, going so far as to have a goon killed by a bowling ball falling off a shelf. But when he ventures outside this territory, into the world of gun violence, being a real issue with dire consequences, the cracks in the entertainment value become uncomfortably thick, as if Tarantino meshed footage of Schindler’s List into Inglourious Basterds. I wanted to like Death Wish for being a bullet and blood bonanza, but not when it tries to make a point of all this madness, only to trail off into another silly segment of Willis getting in an ouch-inducing kill. Such inconsistencies made me wish this tired franchise had stayed buried, coming out as the wrong film at the wrong time.