Director: Eli Roth
Writers: Joe Carnahan (screenplay by), Brian Garfield (from the novel by)
Stars: Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue
A Blu Ray Review
There’s a segment in the new Death Wish that may be the most creatively ironic sequence director Eli Roth has ever assembled.
Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) is increasingly frustrated at the police’s lack of progress in catching the thugs who killed his wife and critically injured his daughter during a home invasion. After deciding to take the law into his own hands, there’s a brilliant montage in which Roth uses split-screen to show Kersey resuming his duties as an ER surgeon in a Chicago hospital, while teaching himself to fire and maintain an automatic handgun at home. As he’s removing a bullet from a gunshot wound, he’s loading rounds into a magazine, saving lives while simultaneously learning how to take them.
The original Death Wish was a both a cultural touchstone and a defining moment in Charles Bronson’s long career, but not such a sacred cow that remaking it is out of the question (one could argue Hollywood’s essentially been doing that for years, anyway). Granted, considering our current cultural climate, the timing couldn’t be worse, but it seems fitting that re-imagining original’s incendiary premise would be placed in the hands of someone with the audacity of Eli Roth.
Considering his torture porn reputation, Roth actually shows a surprising amount of restraint. Death Wish is still brutal-as-hell, but never descends into depravity. In fact, Roth actually pulls most of his punches during the initial home invasion sequence, a key scene that remains extremely difficult to watch in the original. Whether or not this is a positive point depends on your level of fondness for Roth’s usual brand of brutality.
Elsewhere, this is not your daddy’s Death Wish, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The original film may be iconic, but did tend to glorify vigilantism (and author Brian Garfield absolutely hated what they did with his novel). Kersey never hunted down the punks who took his family away; he simply snapped and started walking the streets to lure muggers before shooting them. But in the new film, Kersey actively seeks out specific criminal targets…car-jackers, drug dealers and, through circumstances that are both clever and inane, the very thugs who killed his wife. Like the original, he becomes a media sensation, which this version amusingly presents through talk-radio programs, YouTube and internet memes…a sign of the times.
None of this makes Death Wish better than the original. It’s bigger, louder, gorier and more skilfully crafted, but far less memorable. Despite some clever modern touches – such as the aforementioned montage – this version is mostly content to be a straightforward action film with little substance beneath the surface. Though it’s the best film he’s appeared since Looper, Bruce Willis doesn’t really reach beyond his comfort zone to bring anything new to the Kersey character.
But admittedly, I’ve always enjoyed watching Willis kick-ass. Death Wish may not be another cultural milestone, but it is a lot of vicious, violent fun. And if nothing else, the film is a hell of a lot better than the godawful sequels Bronson finished his career with. Keep your expectations in-check, enjoy the mayhem and apologise to yourself later.