Directed by Eli Roth
Written by Joe Carnahan
Starring Bruce Willis, Elizabeth Shue, Dean Norris, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Beau Knapp
Reber’s Rating – B
I know, I know, before I go any further, let’s just state the obvious – the release of Eli Roth’s Death Wish seems very ill-timed just sixteen days removed from the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. But hear me out before you call this a case of bad timing, especially when Death Wish is very aware of our current headlines and addresses these topics.
To be fair, this remake of Brian Garfield’s critically-lauded 1972 novel has spent twelve years in development. The film was completed in early 2017 and initially slated to release back on November 10th – just four months ago – but was delayed by another instance of gun violence. But hear me out, Fan Fest fam. Before you all go wagging fingers at MGM and Paramount for not pushing the release back further, let me say this – not even a four-month delay could stop this remake from coming. And though people will always be sensitive to issues in the mainstream media, this reimagining of Death Wish is more than just the sort of toss-away popcorn fluff audiences need to permeate their brains once in a while. At the heart of the film, wrapping the plot and characters and gun play, is the very topic that people are much in arms about on both sides of the aisle – gun violence.
Death Wish may only boast credit to one screenwriter – that’d be Joe Carnahan, who crafted both the witty and rip-roaring The A-Team as well as tense survival escapade The Grey – but the final production has nine screenwriters who have taken a crack at the script. Call it a mess, call it trying to crack a code, call it however you desire, but remaking a classic is not the easiest job in Hollywood. Most remakes pale in comparison to the original, but MGM/Paramount wanted to honor Michael Winner’s 1974 film. And whilst Carnahan’s original dialogue is long gone, despite various hands trying to piece together this script to lighten up the dialogue and ensure the film wasn’t overly serious, the final product comes for the director himself. Eli Roth rewrote the script from page one with Dean Georgaris (2004’s The Manchurian Candidate and NBC’s The Brave), retaining some of the levity from previous drafts but instead honing in on the unnerving landscape of modern-day Chicago and weaving true life into the narrative.
Yes – a city that spent most of 2016 crippled by a tidal wave of shootings and gun violence. Look past that year of horrifying headlines and senseless murder, you have two distinct groups of people brawling at each other over Death Wish. Some will claim this film was made to appease the alt-right due to the tone, premise, and setting – a man who turns to the power of a handgun to seek vengeance and ultimately glorifying violence. Others will finger leftists for quickly pointing out the issue with guns and blaming the media for today’s issues with violence in our society. Guess what? Come closer. You ready for the truth?
Death Wish is just an regular good ol’ actioneer and nothin’ more. Playing politics has nothin’ to do with the movie.
Eli Roth has directed nothing but horror films his entire career, but Death Wish is his very first film wandering out of familiar territory. Though many other directors tried to figure out how to angle this remake, Roth knew the direction he wanted to veer. Sure, the theatrics are absolutely a whole different beast, a solitary man tortured by grief and loss and anger and pain who takes matters into his own hands when he sees how besieged the police are. On the flip side, Roth very much desired to make this reboot feel much more contemporary. Gun violence has only gotten worse over the last several years in the United States, our own fascinations with the media and social media fueling those who take matters into their own hands. Roth spent much time in Chicago, entrenching himself in a Chicago Police Department precinct to better understand what the officers and detectives handle on the daily. Then Roth opted to go about presenting the thematic material a whole different way – he went straight for the gut to address the moral compass of Paul Kersey and the quandary of gun violence.
While many movies use media figures to merely further the plot, Eli Roth actually employs such folk to discuss the real-life issues within the frames of the movie. Nearly every single action vehicle you’ve watched is just cookie cutter, yet Roth takes the time to craft a dialogue into the heart of Death Wish to address a very real problem in our country. The director utilizes Chicago localities to serve as his Greek chorus, using both Sway Calloway, at the helm of his popular Shady 45 morning program, and Mancow Muller, hosting his daily 97.9 The Loop radio show. Sway and Mancow are crucial roles as debate moderators, discussing the topics with their respective co-hosts almost like you’re listening to their shows on your daily commute. Roth, wanting to make these segments sparkle with a tinge of realism, sent them the situations from the script and allowed both men to direct themselves – as both morning shows are taped via live-stream in their studios – and rationally discuss their feelings on the topics. Sure, a vigilante on the streets of Chicago? Absolutely fantastical. Taking the time to allow the film to breathe and yet discuss these hard-hitting social issues? I’ve never seen an action film succeed at blending real-life commentary with glossy action sequences without distracting the core audience from the film at hand.
And to not ignore the ever-growing presence of social media, Eli Roth weaves in a bevy of social media tropes into the plot as well. Viral videos. Memes. Hell, Roth’s passion for mediatakeout.com gets a few seconds to glorify the screen. And while some could point out that Roth’s attempts to address these issues via commentary is fruitless, Roth’s point is proven. He wants to show how our reactions to such scenarios saturate our daily lives. Tragic violence around the country is twisted into Internet memes and jokes within hours, within days. No, I’m absolutely certain Eli Roth may have finally found his niche – and that sure ain’t dealing with the horror genre. Switching genres is the jolt that Roth needed creatively to reboot his career and, if Death Wish serves as an example, he’s apt at handling at action movie tactfully.
Alright, well, Roth’s penchant of violence doesn’t fully get placed on the back burner. His love for old-school special and practical effects comes in handy with Kersey when the surgeon finally becomes totally unhinged. Too many actioneers these days are watered down in order to gain attention from the 13-to-18-year-old crowd. Dumb down the bloodshed, censor the swear words, edit out the naughty bits. Studios have been doing this for years. And while parents will take their youngin’s to see this in theaters, said parents will be aghast at the brutality of Kersey’s vengeance once he fires off that first bullet. I’m all for a movie that employs the tactics of yesterday, a gritty revenge thriller that doesn’t fully take itself too seriously. Death Wish doesn’t disappoint with its gashes, squibs, bloodletting, or gruesome contortions of the body. I may be 33 but I still winched not just with shock but giddiness. I cannot recall in recent memory a movie that prefers to not use CGI to increase the violence. Hey, I can’t help it – I live for the action thrillers of yesteryear like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and The Last Boy Scout. Sometimes we need this sort of movie to just take a break.
Some may have preferred the likes of Liam Neeson to tackle the role of Paul Kersey but, honestly, Bruce Willis isn’t just phoning it in like he’s been known to do across the last decade. In fact Willis feels like he is at total ease, dialing back the machismo to play the straight role. His Kersey is not comfortable with violence nor confrontation. He doesn’t want to get into a fight, usually doing his best to hold his tongue rather than trade barbs with someone who could clean his clock. Even once Kersey discovers the power of having a gun in his hands, he’s truly never comfortable trying to fire the handgun. He can practice all he wants to develop some sort of awkward aim but he flinches regardless. Kersey isn’t John McClane, hell, more like the tonal opposite. Kersey’s sleepless nights fade away the more he tracks down the perpetrators, nightmares of his vigilance haunting him and prescription pills his only escape to roll over. He watches YouTube videos to learn how to cover his tracks. His innocence is broken. And I really cannot recall a film in a very long time where Bruce Willis invested time into his character to garner compassion from the audience.
And sure, we see Kersey’s transformation from mild-mannered surgeon to stone-cold killer. He takes solace in the thrills, the adrenaline, the danger. Kersey is more than just your average protagonist with a gun, not by any means. Eli Roth ensures that we’re able to spend the right amount of time with Paul to build the relationship he has with his family, to show why we should share empathy with such a broken man. We are afforded the time from the start to grasp Paul’s deep love and adoration for his wife. The bond that Kersey shares with his daughter. The sibling rivalry, yet strong bond, Kersey maintains with his brother. We develop a sense of emotional attachment to this Lakeshore Drive family, how they champion each other personally and professionally. Sure, we could easily dispense with the first half hour so we just get right to the violence but Death Wish isn’t trying to be every other movie. Roth shapes Paul Kersey as man driven by raw fueled emotion. Without a grasp as to why makes a good man go bad, then this movie would be an utter disaster.
No, the film isn’t perfect, by absolutely no means either. The ending is as formulaic as you can get just to preserve the hopes in guaranteeing a sequel or two. Dean Norris essentially revives his Hank Schrader from Breaking Bad to serve as the lead detective, but that’s okay – Dean Norris flourishes in any project he’s cast. Some characters come and go. (One minute we see Mike Epps, the next he’s gone. Poof.) And you can pinpoint exactly what will happen next with the plot; Death Wish isn’t seeking to reinvent the wheel as much as Eli Roth is trying to honor the original novel. (From what I’ve read, Roth is much closer to the Brian Garfield’s book than the original.) And yes, you can’t quite put Bruce Willis on the same pedestal as Charles Bronson; Bronson approached his roles with a gritty admirable gusto. At the end of the day Willis is, at this point, the grandfather of the action genre. Hard to believe we’re thirty years removed from Die Hard by now, but Willis has had a rollercoaster of a career. Any movie you can see Bruce Willis truly enjoying himself and embracing his character is a sure sign of a winner. Death Wish will never have the right time to be released, but Eli Roth does one hell of a job not just delivering a sharp commentary but also a rousing retribution thriller that stands out among its peers.