Movie review: Death Wish
Bruce Willis is left to fend for himself in director Eli Roth’s inept reload of the Charles Bronson groundbreaker that gave the Everyman a loaded gun and a will to kill
Starring: Bruce Willis, Elisabeth Shue, Dean Norris, Vincent D’Onofrio
Directed by: Eli Roth
Running time: 1 hr 47 mins
By Katherine Monk
The first Death Wish left a scar. It was the first movie with graphic violence I had ever seen. The first time I watched the hero execute people, and even though Charles Bronson was the “good guy” — it all felt wrong.
That was over 40 years ago. Death Wish still feels wrong. But this time around, for a bunch of different reasons.
The first film came out in 1974. Michael Winner took Brian Garfield’s story of an ordinary guy turned vigilante, and cast Bronson as Paul Kersey, an architect who buries his wife and buys a gun to get even. Back then, the idea of guns in the hands of citizens, and killing without a badge, was a talker.
Now, it feels talked out. Eli Roth tries to throw the paddles on the discussion with his new Death Wish. Casting Bruce Willis as surgeon Paul Kersey, Elisabeth Shue as his wife and Camila Morrone as his daughter, Roth assures us he’s going back to the original source material as he explores the moral slope of a good man gone wrong in a bid to do right.
As a Chicago ER surgeon, Paul spends his days saving the lives of gang members and their victims, but when his wife is killed by robbers, he thirsts for justice. The police are overwhelmed by the caseload, so Paul does exactly what any surgeon would never do: Intentionally harm others.
The central character pivot is so absurd that it’s hard to follow the rest of the blood trail through Roth’s trademark chamber of horrors. But we have to go there all the same. We have to watch Willis go all Bruce Willis on the bad guys, which is exactly what we all came for anyway.
Roth spends a little too much time getting to the action. He tries to go for character development so the ensuing bloodbath feels emotionally justified, but he really shouldn’t have bothered. There are many things Roth can do, but drama is not one of them. In truth, every time Roth attempts a serious scene with real emotions — it verges on laughable. The angles are wrong, the performances feel stiff or overcooked and the coverage is ill-conceived.
At one point, you have to feel sorry for the likes of Willis and D’Onofrio because they are really trying to work out a scene together. It’s a big one, too, where Willis’s Kersey has to explain what happened inside his head: What turned him into a killing machine when his entire life was dedicated to helping others.
The moment is so poorly handled and ineptly directed, Willis looks like he’s overacting.
There is no greater sin for a director than to leave your actors flapping in the wind, yet, that’s exactly what happens here as Willis’s heft as an action hero is completely exploited, and sadly cheapened, at Roth’s bloody hands.
Roth made a name for himself directing the Hostel films, as well as being a friend of Quentin Tarantino. He likes to show graphic gore and it’s become his bright red trademark, from using a butane torch on an eyeball to tribal cannibalism, Roth really only has one tool in his toolbox — and it’s a sledgehammer that bludgeons the senses.
He pulls it out in Death Wish, because that’s his thing. But it doesn’t help the movie because it violates the character’s integrity. Dr. Kelsey using his knowledge of nerves to inflict the most pain may make for a sexy pitch to Hollywood’s clutch of creeps, but it doesn’t make any sense from a dramatic perspective.
It also bleeds any sympathy from Dr. Kelsey’s artery of empathy. The only thing that makes Death Wish marginally watchable is Willis because at least he knows what to do. More importantly, he knows what his audience wants him to do: Be bulletproof, be funny, and get even.
Willis delivers all of the above, proving his presence matters more than plot, script or directing. Death Wish turns out to be a clunker with a single gear and a grinding transmission, but it’s still a Bruce Willis movie. The Everyman of action movies is Joe Lunch Bucket with a bad temper and a sarcastic sense of humour, and even without a decent script or or a moral compass, he knows where to go — and how to give you the most bang for your buck.
THE EX-PRESS, March 2, 2018