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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

RECENT WATCHES: Death Wish (2018)

A remake of “Death Wish” has been circulating for years. In 2006, Sylvester Stallone said he wanted to make one. By 2012, director Joe Carnahan took on the project, with the hopes that Liam Neeson would star. After the studio insisted on Bruce Willis, Carnahan exited the film. Eventually, Eli Roth would sign up to remake Michael Winner's cult classic. Why someone would remake “Death Wish” is a question nobody seemed to ask during this long process. As the countless knock-offs suggests, anyone can make a vigilante movie. Clearly, the name recognition was the only thing separating this “Death Wish” from any other similarly themed films. Moreover, the cultural climate could not be more inappropriate for such a project. The studio seemed at least vaguely aware of that last factoid. After shifting the release date around several times, the remake was dumped into theaters this past March.

Roth, along with a team of other writers, would completely rewrite Carnahan's script. The former director is still given sole credit due to wacky WGA rules. Roth's “Death Wish” is a fairly loose remake and is even further disconnected from Brian Garfield's original novel. Paul Kersey's wife is still killed during a violent home invasion. When the police fail to quickly find the perpetrators, he takes the law into his own hand. Other than that, Roth makes many changes. Kersey is now a surgeon, instead of an architect. Rather then punishing random crooks, he's specifically after the men who killed his wife. (His daughter still winds up in a coma but, thankfully, the sexual assault is skipped.) He's also given a rascally brother. There's also the token updates to the story, involving the internet and talk radio. 

The “Death Wish” films have always been reactionary fantasies, stoking urban fears about ordinary (usually white) people being threatened by (usually ethnic) criminals. The idea of a single man taking the law into his own hands, firing guns at people he deems evil, has been thoroughly de-glamorized in the era of George Zimmerman and ten thousand mass shootings. Eli Roth shows some signs he was aware of this. The remake limply attempts to “play both sides,” showing debates between pro- and anti-vigilante people. He also makes several of Kersey's allies and rescues black, which does little to deflect the story's uncomfortable racial connotations. It's all rather half-assed, as the glorious bloodshed Kersey reaps makes it clear what Roth thinks on issues like violence-as-justice, standing your ground, masculinity, and the proliferation of firearms. 

Then again, assuming Roth has any political convictions may be a mistake. His prior attempts at social commentary were closer to trolling than salient points. (He also throws in some satirical elements, like an intentionally ridiculous gun commercial, further muddying the waters.) However, we do know Roth likes horror movies and that's very clear in his “Death Wish.” The home invasion scene is played for more tension than expected. He throws in plenty of explicit gore. A moment that's, admittedly, luridly entertaining involves a crushed head. There's even some  “Hostel” style torture, when Kersey uses his knowledge of human anatomy to interrogate a crook.

Despite a desire to assume 2018's “Death Wish” has some deeper point, it's really just another mediocre Bruce Willis vehicle. Most of the film plays like an undistinguished, modern action movie. There's a “John Wick”-style shootout in a night club, a moment that at least builds decently. Most of the action scenes are not that inspired, Bruce diving around gunshots before returning fire. The climax is especially disappointing, the final bad guy getting blown away without much fanfare. The most colorful moment involves a bowling ball being unexpectedly weaponized. Roth relishes in the gory aftermath – of course he does – but doesn't seem to have much zest for actual action choreography.

Bruce Willis has slummed his way through so many lame action movies. I don't know why I expected “Death Wish” to be any different. There's the briefest glimmer behind his eyes, in the early scenes with Elizabeth Shue and Camila Morrone as his wife and daughter. Once Paul Kersey becomes a vigilante, Willis shuffles into his stale stoic action hero routine, appearing visibly bored. The supporting cast does feature Stephen McHattie loosing his shit in one scene, Dean Norris complaining about doughnuts, and Vincent D'Onofrio playing baseball. In fact, D'Onofrio is the only actor in the film that's having much fun at all. He even gets some chemistry out of the otherwise wooden Willis.

2018's “Death Wish” doesn't have the campy or sleazy thrills of the various sequels. (If that's what you're after, rent “Death Kiss” instead.) Nor does it even come close to capturing the original's grim atmosphere. It keeps a lot of the problematic undertones of the older films but even those are softened in odd ways. I've seen some outraged reactions to the film, who perceive it as racist or a reflection of Donald Trump's America. Ultimately, the new “Death Wish” is not worth any sort of passionate response. It's a fairly dull, largely uninspired motion picture. It doesn't even feel that much like an Eli Roth film, the director clearly operating in a work-for-hire mode. One or two moment stands out but, overall, it's an utterly forgettable experience. They don't make 'em like Michael Winner did anymore and that's probably a good thing. [5/10]

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