Before the DEATH WISH franchise turned into an exploitative, crass, and inept film franchise, the 1974 film that started it all was a sometimes sensitive thriller about a law-abiding man driven to rule-breaking extremes. Charles Bronson played Paul Kersey, a Manhattan architect, who becomes a vigilante after his family is attacked by three home invaders. Grieving over his wife’s murder and daughter’s rape and subsequent coma, he channels his rage into an avenger role, walking the dangerous streets of New York looking for a fight. Director Michael Winner’s film wasn’t as demonstrative in condemning vigilantism as Brian Garfield's novel was, but the movie nonetheless critiqued citizens taking the law into their own hands.
It’s a shame that Eli Roth’s remake misses so many of the smarter and nuanced aspects of the original book or film. Instead, his updates simplify most of the political and societal arguments, and because it stars Bruce Willis, it quickly becomes just another actioner on the superstar’s increasingly dull and bullet-riddled IMDB profile. (Is Willis utterly disinterested in playing anything unique or different like he once did in NOBODY’S FOOL or DEATH BECOMES HER?) Roth is almost craven in how he sets this remake in Chicago, a city besieged with weekly gangland violence, and exploits it for his pulp purposes. It’s all too on-the-nose, and the inclusion of local celebs like radio DJ “Mancow” Muller, Robin Robinson, and Bob Sirott do little to cushion the blows.
The story here starts with Dr. Paul Kersey (he’s now a near north emergency room surgeon) and his loving wife and daughter enjoying tony lives in their Evanston home. Elisabeth Shue plays Lucy, his radiant and smart wife, and Camilla Morone plays his feisty, college-bound daughter Jordan. Lucy buys Paul an expensive watch for his birthday, and the three are about to head out to dinner when he gets a call from the hospital. That allows three thieves to target his home while he’s away and rob it. However, the break-in goes awry with the women fighting back and it results in the murder of the mom and the near-death of the daughter.
Kersey is wracked with guilt, as he watches Jordan waste away in a coma, and this is the one sensitive and moving part of the hero’s arc. Roth allows plenty of time to showcase Willis’ genuine talents as he cries and appears more vulnerable onscreen since THE SIXTH SENSE almost 20 years ago. The scenes where Willis plays off Vincent D’Onofrio as his rascally brother come through as the best acted in the film and let both of these macho men plumb depths of pain and anguish. That’s the last of such complexity, unfortunately, as the remaining 90 minutes becomes increasingly savage, grim, and even glib.
It seems what Roth is most interested in is showcasing is how demonstratively Kersey blows away the scum out there and coaxing his audience to wildly cheer the avenger. The filmmaker has always loved lingering on extreme violence onscreen, and he’s been credited as one of the filmmakers who started the current horror trend of torture porn with his HOSTEL series. I thought he had turned a corner with THE GREEN INFERNO in 2013, a film that condemned senseless violence and demonstrated savvy discretion in how murders were presented onscreen. But now, Roth seems to be back to his old ways, inviting the audience to cheer, if not outright howl with laughter, at Kersey’s bloodletting.
On top of that ridiculous tone in this day and age, considering the rampant shootings all over America, Roth and his screenwriter Joe Carnahan make a ton of blunders in the plotting and presentation of their story as well. For starters, they dress Kersey up in a hoodie to hide his identity, but it makes him look like a 60-year-old going on 12, and it conjures up images of the Unabomber. Then, during his very first time out avenging, Kersey is filmed stopping two carjackers on a witness’ cellphone. That clip goes viral, and Kersey gets the moniker “The Grim Reaper” because of it. Still, Kersey goes out everywhere dressed the same after that, even when he ventures into a packed nightclub to hunt prey. Would Kersey be that obvious? And would the public pay such little attention to that kind of older person trolling around the club? It’s ludicrous.
To make matters worse, Roth and Carnahan have the film’s two detectives (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) show up at every crime scene, whether the Grim Reaper has been ID’ed or not as the potential shooter. These cops are alternatingly intuitive and idiotic, whatever the plot demands at the time. At one point in the story, they finger Kersey’s brother as the killer even though D’Onofrio is 6’4”, a good four inches taller than Willis, and the cell video clearly shows a shooter who’s not nearly as lumbering or gigantic.
Worst of all is the bluntly edited killings by Kersey that practically beg for laughs. His savage mowing down of the drug dealer called “The Candy Man” is so shocking it’s almost cartoonish. So are many of Kersey’s other murders, and it starts to resemble something more like the RED franchise starring Willis rather than something new and different for him and his audience. The audience is encouraged to whoop and holler at every shooting, straining to be entertaining, but it’s asinine as it completely betrays the horrific set-up in the first half hour.
By the time the last of the original perps walk out of the hospital and virtually announces he’s coming to Kersey’s home to finish what he started, the film has completely gone south. Kersey tells his daughter to hide in a clutch while he prepares traps in his seven-figure home to slaughter the intruders. The fact that Kersey would allow his daughter to remain in the house, let alone appear in any potential line of fire after just getting out of the hospital from a months’ long coma, shows how Roth et al. have zero interest in anything smart or sophisticated. Despite lip service to the arguments of gun control and lawlessness, this is a popcorn movie that wants to be enjoyable froth like JOHN WICK. But that franchise is over-the-top at every turn, unlike this one which strives to be realistic when it wants to be.
The original October 2017 release date of this remake was moved back to show sensitivity to the concert shooting that occurred in Las Vegas that month. Now, it's opening today, just a matter of days after the horrible Florida school shooting. It is utterly the wrong movie at the wrong time. After showing the limits and anguish of violence in THE GREEN INFERNO, Roth chooses here to go for easy laughs by photograph Kersey’s gun prepping to the strains of “Back in Black” by AC/DC. That would be egregious at any time in our modern society, but it’s especially unforgivable after the recent events at Stoneman Douglas High School.