Death Wish – Film Review

The first sound you’ll hear is the beginning of an urgent 911 call. Before any details of a mugging or an attack by someone with a gun emerge, another report overlaps the first, then a TV news clip overlaps the call, then a radio report, and so on. One after another, the Chicago media is swamped with breaking news stories; attacks, robberies, death by handguns or automatic weapons. It doesn’t stop.

Neither does the arrival of injured bodies at the Chicago North Hospital. On what we presume is meant to be a typical night, a badly wounded cop involved in a shoot-out is raced across town by his panicked partner. While in the middle of an operation, top surgeon, Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) is called away from the operating room to immediately check the condition of the policeman. But it’s too late. Kersey has to tell the partner there was nothing that could be done. There just wasn’t enough time. Then, as the doctor walks away to attend yet another emergency, the surviving cop angrily calls out, “Now you’re going to save the animal what shot him?” Without turning, the doctor answers, “If I can.”

It’s a fast-paced opener, one that differs considerably in tone to both the ‘72 novel of the same name, and the ‘74 Charles Bronson movie that caused all the controversy. Death Wish, directed by Eli Roth, his first non-horror directed film, is not a continuation of the seventies Death Wish series, it’s a new, reimagined, back-to-the-beginning story that changes names and locations, and leaves you in no doubt as to where the film’s sympathies lie and where the answers to the problems can be found.

The book was anti-vigilantism, the ‘74 movie was not, though it brought into question certain motivations and outcomes. The new film practically spells out what the individual needs to do when faced with a horrific event. If the police can’t help, then it’s up to you to get things done. You get instructions from You Tube and you buy a gun; any kind of gun, or automatic weapon. They’re easy to purchase, the paperwork is light, and the cute young blonde (Kirby Bliss Blanton) who works behind the counter at the gun shop is only too happy to help you walk out with a weapon as soon as possible.

Like the original plot line, where a genial New York certified office accountant took revenge in his own way, here it’s Dr. Kersey who takes to the streets and becomes the unknown vigilante. While away working an unscheduled night shift, the doctor’s home is invaded by masked thieves, resulting with the death of his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and the severe beating of his teenage daughter (Camilla Morrone), now on life support at Kersey’s hospital. Sorry if younger audiences consider that a plot spoiler, but it’s the setup. There’s no one over a certain movie-going age who’ll be expecting the outcome to be anything different.

While the attack in the Kersey home is undeniably violent, it doesn’t have the ugly brutality that director Michael Winner portrayed in his ‘74 feature. The seventies sequence wasn’t just a tough-watch, the attack on Hope Lange was horrifically vile. Surprisingly, not so much in Roth’s present-day remake. The outcome of what occurs is horrific, sure, but the impact of the wretched event doesn’t hit with the same gut-wrenching impact. Nevertheless, when the police offer little comfort due to the overwhelming number of violent gun cases they’re dealing with, the good doctor decides to go it alone. Wearing a hoodie and carrying a handgun, Kersey takes to the streets, looking not only for the guys who broke into his home, but anyone doing something wrong. “He saved my life,” declares one woman to the media, then adds, “Like a guardian angel.”

In Bronson’s film, there was never a sense of satisfaction. Audiences cheered – New York was considerably more violent than it is today, so watching fictional revenge via the movies left a certain level of contentment for ticket buyers – but there was always a strain of doubt that what the man was doing wasn’t altogether the best solution. After his first kill, Bronson’s character spent most of the night in the bathroom hunched over a sink. It took time for him to harden. There’s no such time with Willis’ doctor. His initial handling of a handgun is clumsy, but he doesn’t seem to be losing too much sleep once he gets the hang of what he’s doing. Also, the ‘74 movie took a somewhat realistic approach with respect to finding the thugs who broke into the home. They’re never found; the vigilante was hardly a detective, just someone who was as mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore.

But present-day, mainstream audiences aren’t quite the same. Leave those open-ended conclusions to the head-scratching independent film; here, there’s a craving for satisfaction; it’s set up that way. After all, the new vigilante is the same guy who played John McClane. With all that Die Hard baggage to carry, there’s no way audiences are going to want to see Willis with too many soft spots to harden, or doubts to overcome. Bring on the guns. And among all the shootings, they’d better be reconciliation with the guys who forced the doctor to the streets in the first place, or else.

Considering how author Brian Garfield had intended his story to be against the acts of a vigilante, its no surprise how disappointed he was with the ‘74 film. It forced him to write Death Sentence, a follow-up where his central character lost the focus of what he was doing and became just as dangerous as those he was initially chasing. There’s no such inner soul-searching here. When Willis’ Dr. Kersey first visits his psychiatrist, he admits he’s in purgatory. But once he’s wearing that hoodie and shooting a carjacker, or saving a whole neighborhood block from a thug known as the Ice Cream Man, Kersey is kind of enjoying it. “You look much better,” his psychiatrist will later tell him. “Whatever you’re doing, keep it up.” The film is practically telling Kersey, ‘Attaboy, doc. Good job.’

Though the new Death Wish may well give some audiences reasons to cheer (personal beliefs on the easy availability of guns, and thoughts of taking matters into your own hands aside), the film still doesn’t work. There’s something routine about the whole thing. Nothing surprises. As events unfold, everything occurs in pretty much the way you expect. There’s no real sense of excitement. The original Death Wish was hardly a great movie, plus it spawned four sequels, each progressively worse than the one before. There’s really no need for a continuation. Watching Roth’s reimagined action thriller may have changed some names and the location, and it may have a smoother, slicker, present-day look when compared to the nitty-gritty, streetwise feel of the original, but everything else feels the same. It’s a repeat performance of an earlier film that, let’s face it, wasn’t all that good in the first place.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 105 Minutes    Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)

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