Death Wish is woefully generic fare that’s tonally confused in its storytelling, bland in its direction, and doesn’t bring much new to the table.
A remake of the 1974 film of the same name, Death Wish pairs aging action icon Bruce Willis with director Eli Roth (Hostel, The Green Inferno) to bring the classic tale of vigilante justice to modern audiences. Once one of the biggest stars of the genre, Willis has had a rough go of it lately with a string of underwhelming vehicles the last handful of years. The hope going into Death Wish was that it could be a comeback vehicle for the actor, joining the ranks of recent throwback genre pictures that have entertained audiences. Unfortunately, that really isn’t the case here. Death Wish is woefully generic fare that’s tonally confused in its storytelling, bland in its direction, and doesn’t bring much new to the table.
In crime-ridden Chicago, Paul Kersey (Willis) supports his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) and daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) by working as a doctor at the local hospital. The family has much cause for celebration, as Jordan is accepted into her college of choice shortly before Paul’s birthday. Unfortunately, things quickly turn to tragedy when the Kersey home becomes the latest target in a string of burglaries. While Paul is at work, Lucy is fatally wounded and Jordan is placed in a coma – turning his life upside down.
Detectives Kevin Raines (Dean Norris) and Leonore Jackson (Kimberly Elise) are assigned to handle the Kersey case, but Paul is dismayed by their lack of progress. Frustrated by the inaction of law enforcement, Paul decides to take matters into his own hands and becomes a hoodie-wearing crime fighter the media dubs “The Grim Reaper” when videos of his exploits go viral. As Paul patrols the streets of Chicago to help those in need, he’s also hopeful he can track down the men who attacked his family and retaliate.
The biggest issue with Death Wish is the very basic execution. Narratives of this kind aren’t anything particularly new for Hollywood after the original Death Wish set the template, and Roth’s version lacks something of note to make it stand from the crowd. There’s no intricate world-building a la John Wick or any unique flair in regards to the directorial touches. Some of the action beats are eye-opening in their brutality, but they amount to little more than cheap thrills so fans can relish in sequences of Willis shooting the bad guys. Unsurprisingly, Roth (who specializes in gore/torture) struggles to land the dramatic scenes necessary to make audiences fully invested in the story.
Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan also struggle to find the proper tone for a Death Wish reboot. The film deals with very real (and socially relevant) issues of gun violence in the United States, but more often than not skirts around its questionable morals in order to transport Willis back to the 1980s with catchy one-liners as he takes down the next faceless villain. This causes the messages of Death Wish to get muddled to the point where they ultimately do not resonate with the audience. Roth also makes some baffling filmmaking choices (see: a montage where Paul learns to shoot a gun set to “Back in Black”) that clash with the harsher realities Paul is dealing with. This new Death Wish severely lacks the grit and authenticity it needed to carry weight, failing to strike the balance between drama and levity.
As for Willis, he’s perfectly adequate in the role of Paul Kersey, but this isn’t anything viewers haven’t seen before. While he proves he can still handle a set piece, there isn’t much in the performance to make this the actor’s next memorable character. His arc is also shortchanged by almost comedic amounts, as Paul transitions from mild-mannered doctor to ruthless killing machine in virtually no time at all. Death Wish never really addresses the consequences of Paul’s actions, chalking it up to a case of “Somebody has to do it!” instead of exploring the toll something like this would take on a family man. People are obviously going to Death Wish to see Willis kill criminals, but it would have been nice if there was a more interesting portrayal of a desperate man turning to his last resort.
The supporting cast is essentially the typical by-the-numbers roster of characters to surround Paul with. Shue and Morrone make the most of what they have to work with, trying the best they can to sell a touching family dynamic. Sadly, there just isn’t much material given to them, and they feel like stock figures to serve as little more than Paul’s motivation. Vincent D’Onofrio is a nice presence as Paul’s well-meaning brother Frank, though he too is mostly relegated to clichéd dialogue as the concerned, loving relative. Norris and Elise are the closest things to a foil Death Wish gives Willis (they’re tasked with identifying The Grim Reaper), which is very much an indictment on the quality of the film’s villains. They are your run-of-the-mill, dime a dozen antagonists that exist solely for Willis to mow down.
In the end, Death Wish is more or less what people expected when it was announced. The film is too standard for its own good, and there are viewers who will definitely feel uncomfortable with its depiction of gun violence given current events in the country. Perhaps in the hands of another director, a Death Wish remake could have deftly combined smart social commentary with the hard-hitting action viewers paid to see, but as it stands, it’s a rather unnecessary redux that’s an uninspired addition to its genre. Unless one is a die-hard fan of Willis’ action flicks, this is one you can skip in theaters.
Death Wish is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 107 minutes and is rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout.
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