Since everything old is new again, it stands to reason that the 1974 Charles Bronson vehicle “Death Wish,” based on a 1972 novel by Brian Garfield, would be dredged up and remade for new audiences. But what resonated in the ’70s takes on a different tenor 44 years later. Context is everything, and the problem with this “Death Wish,” starring Bruce Willis, directed by Eli Roth, written by Joe Carnahan, is the concept would have always sat uneasy in our current state of affairs.
“Death Wish” was postponed from its fall 2017 release date, presumably because it fell too close to the events of the October shooting in Las Vegas, in which 58 people died. The new release date is now unfortunately close to the events of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., where teen survivors have pushed gun control to the forefront of the national conversation. It says so much about the epidemic of gun violence in this country that there is simply no weekend far enough away from a gun massacre to comfortably open a film about a lone vigilante gunman.
The lone gunman is a character archetype that goes back to the beginning of cinema, from Westerns to spy movies to revenge tales. But it’s increasingly clear, as many of these films push the envelope on violence, that glorifying lone gunmen as heroes who are morally above the law is not only in bad taste: It’s simply irresponsible.
Willis’ character, Dr. Paul Kersey, a surgeon, is given more than ample justification for his actions. His wife, Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) and daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) are horrifically attacked during a home invasion robbery. Lucy is killed and Jordan is seriously injured. Desperate he was unable to protect his family, Kersey takes matters into his own hands and sets out to enact some vigilante justice on the streets of Chicago, and possibly find the killers of his wife. Blasting away random drug dealers and car jackers, he earns himself the nickname of “Grim Reaper.”
Roth has a horror background, and he can’t resist squishing around with the blood and guts. But his filmmaking craft is slick — the film moves and careens efficiently, held together with a drum-tight edit by veteran action editor Mark Goldblatt. There are some cheeky, inspired set pieces, like a split-screen montage depicting Paul at work as a surgeon and practicing his firearm skills at home (he steals a Glock from a patient he operates on. No really.). As he’s saving lives, extracting bullets, he’s practicing to take lives, giving bullets. That’s the kind of arch commentary “Death Wish” should, and can’t maintain.
Roth always brings a sick gleefulness to his style, which doesn’t always serve the dark material. The film cranks up the audience with little jokes and references, and gets the audience cheering for the Grim Reaper before they even realize what they’re cheering for — and therein lies the problem.
The film tries to have it both ways on the gun issue — Roth nails the perverse nature of gun culture in America, and includes commentary from radio hosts like Sway and Mancow who argue against lionizing the Grim Reaper, but that feels reverse-engineered after the fact. Ultimately, the audience doesn’t cheer when Sway passionately voices opposition to this normalization of violence. They cheer when Kersey, “a good guy with a gun” we’re told, blasts a bad guy with no recourse or consequence. What does that say about us? More importantly, what does that say about our movies? Nothing good in either case.