Dr. Paul Kersey (played by Bruce Willis) is an ER surgeon in Chicago who lives a happy, comfortable life in the suburbs with his wife Lucy (played by Elizabeth Shue) and daughter Jordan (played by Camila Morrone). After a family lunch outing that also included Paul’s brother Frank (played by Vincent D’Onofrio), their valet driver snaps a photo of Paul’s address saved in the car’s GPS. Later that night, after Paul is called to the hospital to cover a shift, three thugs break into the house and, after attempting to fight back the invaders, Lucy is shot dead and Jordan is severely beaten, ending up in a coma. Both women arrive in the ER, where Paul is made aware of the situation.
Speaking to Detectives Raines (played by Dean Norris) and Jackson (played by Kimberly Elise), Paul is reassured that the police will find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. After months of sleepless nights and therapy sessions, Paul visits Raines, who tells him that the police still have no leads on any suspects. With stories of countless murders splashed across the news every night, Paul decides that the best way to cope with his loss is to take the law into his own hands, and figuratively clean up the streets of Chicago all by himself.
DEATH WISH is a remake of the infamous 1974 film of the same name, itself based on the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield. The original 1974 catapulted Charles Bronson to the status of “action hero,” but was also widely criticized at the time for its perceived endorsement of vigilante justice. But say what you want about that film (and its stream of sequels – each one getting progressively worse than its predecessor), I don’t think anyone would accuse the original DEATH WISH of having “bad timing;” on the contrary, its release in the middle New York City’s 1970s crime wave seemed more than timely, subsequently sparking a debate on how to handle the rising crime level. But the 2018 version of DEATH WISH, on the heels of the Parkland, FL school shooting and a renewed national debate on gun control? Well if that isn’t bad timing, then I don’t know what is.
This iteration of DEATH WISH seems to not want to take a particular stance in the gun debate, preferring to toe the line between the pro/anti side, and that’s okay. To criticize the film because of this, I don’t feel is very fair. It is evident that director Eli Roth sought to make a straightforward, action-packed, run-of-the-mill revenge film, and that’s what he did. The real question is if it’s a good film, and honestly, it really isn’t.
The first issue comes with the story itself, which is filled with clichés and what I call “lucky” moments. While the motivation for Paul’s turn to vigilantism is solid enough, his success rate throughout his superhero-like run just isn’t believable; during each of his excursions, I felt that, in the real world, he would’ve been shot dead each time. To me, it just screamed “lazy writing” when Paul is saved, at one point, by a conveniently-placed bowling ball. This was also my thought during a scene in which a huge lead in tracking down the perpetrators just conveniently rolls into his ER. There were just too many moments that seemed opportunely placed there to advance the plot, instead of making those moments happen in a more seamless nature.
Another issue with the film is the acting – particularly Bruce Willis’. Now I’m sure people will say I’m nitpicking with this because no one has ever compared Bruce Willis to, say, a Lawrence Olivier or a Daniel Day-Lewis, and that’s not why people go to see his movies anyway. But I have to call Bruce Willis out here because his acting just wasn’t good. Think about his character for a moment: this is a man who has had his entire world ripped away from him, a man who is now constantly putting himself down, making himself feel worthless, because he feels that he let his family down by not protecting them. This is a man who feels isolated and alone, with no one he can turn to; so in his mind, he has no choice but to take the law into his own hands.
Yet, Bruce Willis’ performance doesn’t convey any of that well; there is a certain scene in the film, almost immediately after his wife was killed, where he just comes across like nothing’s happened. Willis gives the bare minimum when it comes to emotions, but for this particular story and this particular character, it just wasn’t enough. I virtually felt that, in some scenes, he just didn’t care. In fact – Vincent D’Onofrio was the real MVP of this film, carrying every scene that he’s in with almost a hidden modesty, so as not to outshine the lead.
One other thing that bothered me (and yes, I can admit this more closely resembles a nitpick) is setting the film in Chicago. To me, that just screamed “easy target.” Whenever the issues of high crime and guns come up in political debates, Chicago is always the favorite example as to why gun control doesn’t work. And throughout the film, you hear talking heads on the radio talking about how many murders are being reported; almost as if to eventually justify Paul’s future vigilantism. Quite frankly, you could’ve set this film in any other urban setting – New York, L.A., Detroit, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc. – and it would’ve had the same effect. Setting this film in Chicago just came across like a very cheap move.
Nevertheless, the type of crowd that this film caters to doesn’t care about politics, plot holes, bad acting, or tone-deaf settings; they are there to see Bruce Willis beat up some bad guys – and to the film’s credit, it delivers that in spades. This is one of those films, similar to the TRANSFORMERS series, where if you can manage to turn off your brain for two hours, it becomes a pretty decent popcorn flick. And quite frankly, that’s all this film is trying to be, going as far as to stay as politically neutral as possible (though even that isn’t pulled off very well in some instances). So if you’re willing to overlook its flaws and just enjoy an action-packed and bloody revenge film for what it’s worth, then give this a shot. But I do have one question, the answer to which should decide for you if you really want to see this film…
…did anybody want (or even ask for) a remake of DEATH WISH?
Yup, I thought so.
2018 • 107 Minutes • United States
Color • English • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Cast: Bruce Willis, Elizabeth Shue, Vincent D’Onofrio, Camila Morrone, Dean Morris, Kimberly Elise, Beau Knapp