Eli Roth's remake of the classic vigilante film Death Wish is surprising in several ways. The film is graphically violent, but thankfully devoid of the horrific rape scenes that made the original series so jarring. The script by Joe Carnahan (The A-Team,The Grey) takes a critical view of the gun crimes epidemic sweeping the nation. The update of the setting to Chicago is the perfect environment to address the scourge. The problem is that Roth and Carnahan bring up the issue, but they don't make any effort to answer it. The result is that Death Wish languishes. Eli Roth has delivered something that is really no different than a standard, bloody action flick. Some parts are devastating, others funny, but the overall film lacks the punch of the original.
Bruce Willis stars as Paul Kersey, a wealthy Chicago surgeon with an idyllic life. He has a beautiful wife (Elizabeth Shue) and successful teenage daughter (Camila Morrone), just accepted into New York University. Kersey sees the result of gun trauma daily at work, but escapes the brutality in the suburbs. Kersey's world comes crashing down on his birthday. Called away for emergency surgery, armed robbers break into his house and savages his precious family. Kersey is left a broken man. As the cops flounder investigating the case, Kersey becomes more and more disenchanted by his city's crime wave. The mild mannered doctor takes an interest in firearms. Before long, he is transformed into the headline making vigilante, The Grim Reaper.
Death Wish nails the horror and grief. A man's love for his wife and children is precious above all. To have that taken away suddenly, then watch as nothing is done, must be an unbearable burden. The call to action is clearly understood. Who wouldn't want to take revenge? Kersey's dilemma turns to bloodlust. He feels he must right the wrongs of a broken, inadequate system. As Kersey's Grim Reaper persona transfixes Chicago, the film has scenes where popular radio hosts discuss the vigilante killing spree. To some he is a hero, taking back the streets from scum. To others, he is even more dangerous, a psychopath against civilized society. These early scenes, the first half of Death Wish are the high points.
Death Wish gives up on its philosophy and turns into a rote action film. Bad guys get their due in bloody spades. Kersey hunts down his family's attackers and dispatches them in cruel ways. The bloodlust was a hit with the audience. People cheered as Kersey delivered his fatal medicine. It's easy applause that comes from basic instincts. Kersey becomes the doctor that takes lives as opposed to saving them. His character becomes cold, which to a degree is understandable. The final act of the Death Wish is a total letdown. It is predictable, standard stuff. Roth and Carnahan make no effort to dig deeper and make a statement about their premise.
Death Wish is pertinent to the times. As the seventies and eighties were awash in violent crime, modern society grapples with the issue of guns. From school massacres to the daily homicides overtaking American cities, guns are the instruments of destruction. Kersey has a right to defend his family. But where would we be in this country if everyone settled their differences with a bullet? In the film, the law and police don't exist, are useless. Heaven forbid America comes to that point in reality. The irony is that violent crime is actually down from the Charles Bronson Death Wish era. We just live in a world where the consequences of gun violence are easily seen and processed. No one is safe in the suburbs. A bullet can find you anywhere.
From MGM, Death Wish peters away its early promise. It's another barrage of guns and violence in a sea of the same. There's nothing that differentiates this revenge story. I am thankful the violence against women is toned down. We don't need to see women being brutalized to get the picture. Eli Roth (Hostel,Cabin Fever) is known for his torture porn horror films. He dials back here and that's fine with me.