Depending on which side of the gun control debate you’re on, Eli Roth’s remake of Death Wish couldn’t have come at a better or worse time. Fresh on the heels of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting tragedy, the film will play to viewers as either the ultimate justification for fewer gun regulations or a reason for a stricter crackdown where gun ownership is concerned. Of course, this hinges on where you land on the subject of vigilante justice and committing cold-blooded murder.
Bruce Willis steps into Charles Bronson’s shoes as Paul Kersey, a shattered husband with a grudge. This time out, he happens to be a surgeon with a loving wife (Elisabeth Shue) who’s about to get her doctorate and a teenage daughter (Camila Morrone) who has a promising future. That is, until their upper middle-class Evanston home is invaded by thieves who leave mom dead and daughter in a coma. What with slow, ineffectual police detectives on the case (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise), Kersey becomes impatient and takes matters into his own hands, deciding to clean up the mean streets of Chicago on his own. Sporting a hoodie and made famous on social media thanks to witness-made videos that are immediately posted to the internet, the vigilante becomes known as the Grim Reaper and sparks a debate over whether he’s a righteous avenger or public menace among the good citizens of the Windy City.
There are no shadings of grey where director Eli Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan are concerned, which relegates the film to being just another Hollywood action flick, albeit one the NRA could easily use to promote its agenda. (Note the scene in which the sexy saleswoman at a gun store dispenses with the paperwork to get a gun with a wave of her hand.) Kersey’s motivation is beyond reproach; his revenge is just as he manages to (luckily) track down the criminals who destroyed his family, and there are no loose ends or charges filed, as the cops in charge just give him a wink and send him on his way.
A far more interesting approach would have been to take character actor Vincent D’Onofrio (“Law and Order: Criminal Intent”), used here as Kersey’s brother, and put him in the lead role. Willis has become known for his man-of-action persona whereas D’Onofrio has an everyman quality that would have made the character’s reaction to this tragedy much more interesting. What would a normal man do in this situation? How clumsy and conflicted would a run-of-the-mill Joe be when faced with his first shooting victim? D’Onofrio, a much better actor than Willis, would have been able to effectively delve into this, grounding the film in a firm reality that may have sparked some meaningful conversation.
This is a standard middle-age male fantasy as our hero’s sense of ineffectualness and frustration is easily rectified with a gun, his confidence restored and his manhood in tact. Roth can’t be bothered with looking at the psychological effects Kersey’s actions would have on himself while those voicing outrage over his vigilante methods are given short shrift. Unlike last year’s excellent In the Fade, Death Wish isn’t interested in looking at the long-term effects of a victim’s grief or what embracing violence does to one’s soul. No, this is an old-fashioned shoot ‘em up that exists only to provide cathartic kicks for those viewers looking for an easy fix to a complex problem.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.