Eli Roth’s work as a director of features, at least his last few, feels like some ruthless act of mainstream trolling: he turns provocative situations into nightmarish scenarios, especially for progressive audiences. Even when they don’t completely work, like with Green Inferno, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’d almost always settle for something with one new idea than a dozen old ones, and he’s frequently been successful mining current events – or maybe more accurately, zeitgeist discourse – for skillfully-executed films. Death Wish lacks anything unique at all, except perhaps the degree to which it feels so spectacularly, catastrophically ill-conceived and yet bereft of any personality or anything distinctive, a tepid remake of an already dubiously executed movie that inexplicably doesn’t even double-down on those elements that would best antagonize its critics to make for something, well, if not gleefully irresponsible, at the very least memorable.
Bruce Willis plays Dr. Paul Kersey, the best (and possibly only) surgeon at a busy hospital in Chicago. On the night of Paul’s birthday, his wife Lucy (Elizabeth Shue) is killed and daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) incapacitated during a robbery at their house, leaving him wracked not only with grief, but guilt that he failed to protect them. When Detectives Rains (Dean Norris) and Jackson (Kimberly Elise) investigating his case turn up no immediate leads, it seems likely the criminals who committed these heinous acts will go unpunished. But after Paul recovers a gun from a patient and prevails in an unexpected firefight with two random carjackers, he develops a thirst for vengeance against the city’s criminal population. As citizens brand him “the Grim Reaper” and wrestle with the prospect of a vigilante cleaning up their streets, Paul slowly uncovers a path to the names and locations of the perpetrators of his wife’s murder, while Rains and Jackson begin to connect the dots between this humble, grieving doctor and a growing, bloody string of executions.
Though it was a commercial success and spawned a national debate about its themes, Michael Winner’s 1974 original was so reviled by author Brian Garfield, who wrote the novel upon which it’s based, that he wrote a sequel book, Death Sentence, as a “penance.” That piece of trivia feels like enough of a reason not to revisit the material, but one supposes that four hit sequels justifies this remake, irrespective of the fact that its brand of vigilante justice feels especially tin-earned in an era of mass shootings and seemingly constant gun violence. (The film was delayed once already in the wake of the shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017.) Nevertheless, Roth, working from a script by Joe Carnahan, seems to have absolutely nothing to say about the increasing relevance of its themes, nor examine the moral quandary at the center of Paul Kersey’s journey, instead opting to explore a revenge wish-fulfillment fantasy tinged only with the understated sadness of an evolving world passing old white dudes by.
It’s hard to tell whether it’s Carnahan’s script or the actors, especially poor Elizabeth Shue, that seem to be in such a hurry to front-load its early scenes with exposition, detailing the achievement and potential lost as a result of what are indisputably horrifying crimes. (Roth, so enamored of 1970s exploitation films, shows tremendous restraint by not subjecting Morrone’s Jordan to a sexual assault, especially given the fact that the character in Garfield’s book endures one.) Once they’re out of the way, however, Willis is distractingly unresponsive, doing the movie no favors as he lumbers through each scene as if in search of nothing more satisfying than the warmth of his trailer, and possibly a day’s paycheck. Though he must still retain some box office muscle, Willis feels increasingly like a cross for younger filmmakers to bear; sometimes they wrangle his indifference into something approximating a real performance, as Rian Johnson did with Looper and Wes Anderson with Moonrise Kingdom, but more often he exudes an exasperating lack of fucks, such as in Cop Out or G.I Joe Retaliation, that feels insulting to anyone who remembers how great he used to be.
Roth seems to feel obligated to have some sort of debate about the merits of a mysterious vigilante killing criminals, but evidences no actual perspective on the idea, and relegates the discussion to interstitial montages where radio shows weigh the pros and cons with the nuance and substance of, well, a random group of people who are expected to talk whether or not they have anything meaningful to say. Unfortunately, that’s what the whole film feels like – an obligatory effort to keep the names of the cast and crew in front of the public, that offers nothing except familiar story beats and a few flourishes of brutal, superfluous violence. There was a time when you might not have liked what Roth had to say, but at least there was something there – some thought or concept – to explore. By comparison, Death Wish doesn’t even count as empty provocation; it’s just plain empty, and unworthy of the impish talent of a filmmaker who, be it out of genuine creativity, fun, or just for profit, typically excels at pushing our buttons.