Movie Review: Death Wish (2018).
In 2018 we get a remake of an action movie from the 70’s that feels like an action movie from the 90’s. Got it?
Director Eli Roth is generally known for making lurid and provocative horror films that revel in gore and notoriety. Much of the criticism directed towards his remake of Death Wish would lead you to believe he’s made another film like that. While that may please Roth to keep his streak alive, at least in the press, I have to say I didn’t find much in Death Wish that would provoke. Roth’s update of the 1970’s gun-lover’s propaganda film is mostly sanitized and commercialized. This makes for a much more watchable experience than the original, but it also makes it about as edgy and socially relevant as a Steven Seagal flick.
Death Wish (2018).
Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) is a surgeon in a very busy trauma ward in Chicago. Gun violence floods his ER with victims nightly, and the bodies that wind up on Kersey’s table are usually in a horrific state. One night, the worst happens and the two victims rushed into the ER are Kersey’s wife and daughter. A burglary gone wrong has made Paul a widower and left his daughter in a coma. After struggling to get justice through an overworked police force, the doctor decides to get a gun and get justice on his own.
Death Wish (1974) was not a subtle film. Its politics were plain to see: a denunciation of “bleeding heart liberals” and the loss of a frontier justice ethos. Its violence was meant to be shocking and brutal, including the grisly rape and murder of Paul’s family. The shock was intended to wake up weak-willed wimps to the dire state of society. While Charles Bronson portrayed Kersey with more nuance than your average vigilante action hero, he was a still playing the NRA’s wet dream of a “good guy with a gun” who has taken “stand your ground” to extend to the whole damn city.
Death Wish 2018 has mostly abandoned those points to make a more accessible and commercially viable action flick.
Paul Kersey is now a gritty doctor instead of a namby-pampy architect, and his politics are non-existent. He’s neither a pre-tragedy flower child nor a post tragedy right-wing Rambo. The attack on his family is mercifully sanitized. While there are radio shock jocks discussing crime and flirting with Rush Limbaugh levels of discourse, they never talk politics. Bruce Willis and the script give Kersey none of the nuance of Bronson’s hero, turning him into a one-line spitting action hero that you could drop into the 1990’s and nobody would bat an eye at. Roth tries to ratchet up the gore in places, but it comes off as laughable when dropped into such a standard action flick.
On Deadly Ground.
As an action flick, Death Wish 2018 is pretty solid. The pace is good, the story moves predictably but ably through a narrative that gives you enough motivation to stay tuned-in, and the film has a decent amount of varied action sequences. Bruce Willis isn’t reinventing the wheel, but neither is Roth, so they work well together. Vincent D’Onofrio is working way too hard to make his role of Paul’s brother respectable in a movie that doesn’t give a shit about respectable. The baddies are suitably evil but generic, speed bumps on the road of vengeance for Paul. A few token efforts are made to render Kersey as a human instead of a Terminator, but it’s not nearly as convincing as the first Die Hard film’s John McClane.
There are a few touches that further cement this film as an ode to 90’s action instead of a re-imagining of the pulpy exploitation films of the 70’s. The soundtrack with AC/DC is way overblown, and hardly any of the action sequences warrant such ballsy musical swagger. Magic guns that never need to be reloaded (for the good guy, baddies apparently buy cheaper clips!) but jam mysteriously during tense moments are found aplenty. Willis whips off some really bad one-liners, and the movie even adds a version of a rim shot effect each time he trots one out.
Death Wish 2018 doesn’t have anything to say. It tries to weakly address the “are vigilantes awesome or merely super cool” problem of the original by having radio talk show mouthpieces pretty much ask exactly that question. Likewise, bloviating clones of Alex Jones and Limbaugh harp on the crime, but they don’t blame anybody. Not even so much as a “Thanks, Obama!” The cops are just an average level of lame, dropping de rigeur jokes about wanting donuts here and there. The worst part is that Paul Kersey is made into a generic good guy cypher. Whereas Bronson ‘s character experiences internal conflict as he sinks into depravity, Willis and Roth avoid any soul searching by making all of his conflict external.
The part of Death Wish that really disappoints is that it plays everything safe. While I’m glad that the film doesn’t revel in the murder and sexual assault that Death Wish 1974 did…at least that violence had a point. It was a stupid, reactionary point that could only exist in the fantasy land of movies or the imaginations of paranoid militia enthusiasts, but it was a point. This remake of Death Wish is an easier and more entertaining film to watch, but it’s not going to challenge you on any level.
People who clutched their pearls about this film must have assumed it would be saying the same thing as the 1974 film, when it hardly says anything at all. If you like 90’s action flicks and don’t mind Roth’s penchant for cheesy gore, this film will tide you over. If you wanted to grapple with thorny issues of crime, violence, and gun culture in America, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.
*Yes. These are all titles from Steven Seagal movies. I was really hoping to find room for “Mercenary for Justice”, but it just wasn’t in the cards.