Death Wish (Eli Roth, 2018)

by Douglas Buck December 28, 2019 5 minutes (1102 words)

Life-saving trauma surgeon Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) has his pristine suburban life turned upside down when his cutesy (okay, a little more than that — seriously hot, enough that Hollywood hotshot Leonardo Dicaprio has staked a claim on her), smarty-pants teenage daughter (Camila Morrone) and still-kinda-hottie wife (Elizabeth Shue) are savagely attacked in their wealthy Chicago home, after a home robbery gone wrong… finding the cops unable to help, it’s soon time for the once law-abiding doc to take matters into his own hands, street justice-style (naturally).

Time marches on, as does my little cinema cavalcade’s sporadic looks back at all things Death Wish-ian… and, admittedly, this avenue of viewings has lately been coming up a little short. While the original film that kick-started the urban vigilante genre proved itself to be an exciting, 70’s gritty (if mostly reactionary) fantasy of White Man street justice, bolstered by perhaps Charles Bronson’s greatest performance (don’t get me wrong – Bronson has been incredible as a presence in so many films, in so many ways, not the least being Sergio Leone’s epic western masterwork, Once Upon a Time in the West, but with the original Death Wish he delivers a vulnerable, emotionally modulated performance not oft asked of him, or perhaps not something he was usually up for delivering), and the four sequels all at least had their varied violent charms (and/or worthwhile wonkiness), as we moved our viewings into vengeance films from the aughts, things have gone on a decidedly downhill trajectory.

While Death Sentence from 2007, with Kevin Bacon as the latest good liberal type on the rampage after his family is attacked, which is sort of a remake of the original, even if tangentially (and I do mean tangentially) based on and named after author Brian Garfield’s Kersey-follow-up sequel to the original novel that really began it all, was a pretty vapid experience, I grant that it at least had some decent candy-coated action set-pieces, went for broke on the level of shockingly violent family slaughter and tried to have something worthwhile to express (even if playing around with any real emotional depth proved way beyond the skills of vapid filmmaker James Wan). So the bottom didn’t fully drop out until watching this listless, pointless, and deeply uninspired direct 2018 remake, provided to us by that Hollywood conman extraordinaire Eli Roth (he of the deeply reactionary and deplorable The Green Inferno), however.

As with Death Sentence, this new “Wish” transplants the threat from within the city (where architect Kersey actually lives in the original, being a more old-school privileged liberal) to the suburbs, with the filmmakers much more eager to trade on the kind of upper-middle class, mainstream-sold (and completely false) fear and resentment that somehow those awful and dangerous lower urban classes are a threat to all those good folk raising their hot, gym-bodied kids out in the safe ‘burbs. Of course, the opposite is true – the entire system is set up to fuck over the lower classes in service of pampering the upper classes, but don’t tell Wan or Roth that… it gets in the way of their delusional, audience-comforting, ideologue storytelling.

Considering the reality that almost the entirety of the Chicago-based crime that backgrounds the film occurs in under-privileged areas, with it being poor killing poor, the very conceit of the film relies on a hyped fear that isn’t even real. As we’re shown the Kersey’s daughter get accepted into NYU, playing soccer (with their proud family watching), there is zero sense of any of this, only a display of how important it is to protect the noble privileged class.

To be clear, being reactionary on its own is far from a show-stopper for me (just check out the accolades I heaped on _ Rambo First Blood Part II_ in my last write-up), and it’s not like the original _ Death Wish_ didn’t wallow in similar reactionary terrain. Good filmmaking is always appreciated in this corner of the cinematic reviewing world. One of the strengths of the original “Wish” was the emotional arc of Kersey, which, as I said, was so well performed by Bronson, as well as the creation of a gritty, scary New York urban landscape. The remake, however, barely seems concerned with creating anything exciting. Tight-lipped and dour Willis is barely present in the part, going through the motions, giving it as little effort as possible. His Kersey, now a surgeon saving the life of the beaten and shot up underclasses (oh, the irony!), goes from family man to a kind of super-killer with no interesting transformation at all.

While the film is directed by Roth with a certain uniformity (unlike his mess that was the aforementioned The Green Inferno, which is so overtly inept in its execution it defies belief that it was actually released, even if it took years after completion for that to happen), the whole exercise feels like it’s operating by rote; it’s the shooting of a schematically-realized script with no inspiration.

Vincent D’Onofrio shows up in a relatively thankless role (though I’m sure it was a decent paycheck, so what the hell) as Frank, the somewhat delinquent, but seemingly caring brother that Kersey helps out now and then financially; the film seems to be wanting to play with the notion that Frank might have more devious connections to the initial attack on the Kersey family, but this thread just hangs there, gaining no traction, or playing out in any interesting way.

The violence is occasionally nasty, but it’s constantly watered down by the absurdity of Willis’ Kersey as suddenly being this cold-hearted uber-menschen. Sure, going out and trying to even the score after your wife and daughter have been brutally attacked is understandable, but having that alone turn you into an excellent marksman, a professional assassin? Silly.

The recreation of the infamous, now-classic finger-point by Kersey, which had a sense of something daring and provocative as given to us by original director Michael Winner and Bronson, merely plays as affectation coming from empty-minded Roth and the lethargic Willis.

Time to follow that most-comforting mantra of my cinephile heart; namely, to go back in time, in this case, to the 70’s and early 80’s, when all those indie _ Death Wish_ rip-offs really took off, with interesting ones to explore like William Lustig’s Vigilante and the hard-to-find Tom Skerrit starrer Fighting Back, as well as Italian fare like Enzo Castellari’s Street Law, to get us excited again. Get this bad taste out of our mouths.

Death Wish (Eli Roth, 2018)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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