It’s a given that Hollywood, when not busy producing sequels and offshoots of successful films, is known for dusting off old hits, then shining them up in the form of a remake. Let’s just take last year as an example. In 2017, we got “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Mummy,” “It,” “Flatliners,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” and “Jumanji.”
Among the pile of remakes scheduled for this year, which includes “Tomb Raider,” “Overboard,” “Scarface,” Robin Hood,” and “A Star Is Born,” first up is “Death Wish,” based on the 1974 film, which was based on the 1972 novel. The premise, which has remained pretty much the same in all three incarnations, features a happy family man, whose life is disrupted when a robbery gone wrong leaves him both a widower and the single father of a daughter who’s now in a coma, and is consumed with guilt over the fact that there’s nothing he can do to get the bad guys. The closest he can come to emotional recovery is turning into a vigilante and taking to the streets, rather than waiting for the cops to act.
Set in contemporary Chicago, where news highlights insist that violent crime is at an all-time high, and with Bruce Willis stepping in to the role of Paul Kersey, which originally brought Charles Bronson to mid-career stardom, the film gets a bunch of nastiness out of the way in its first few minutes. Kersey, a top trauma surgeon in this version, is at work when robbers invade his home, come up against his tough and feisty wife and daughter (Elizabeth Shue and Camila Morrone), and commit some vicious acts (off-camera).
Kersey, introduced as a calm and steady man, keeps those traits, but is obviously broken when seen talking with a couple of well-meaning but overworked and frustrated detectives. A conversation with his bitter and fed-up father-in-law gets him thinking about taking the law into his own hands.
Under the direction of horror master Eli Roth, “Death Wish” is at once a timely film, in that it takes a searing look at the gun problem in our country. Though it neither condemns not condones gun ownership, it does point out, in and almost offhand way, how easy it is to get one, whether it’s for committing a crime or seeking retribution for one. But it also delves into the risky waters of suggesting that violent payback is a good therapeutic method of dealing with emotional recovery.
Kersey, armed and “trained” via an online shooting course, wearing a hoodie to cover his identity, and taking to the streets to track down the perpetrators of the robbery, finds that he gets a sort of high from breaking up other crimes: A carjacking, the beating of a child by a drug dealer. A video of him in action, but not revealing his face, goes viral, resulting in some of Chicago’s population labeling him a “guardian angel,” while others — including law enforcement officials -— refer to him as “The Grim Reaper.” All anyone really knows is that he’s a white guy in a hoodie, and he’s eliminating bad guys.
Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan cleverly fill the film with clues (a stolen watch) and foreshadowing (a piece of furniture) that, when revealed, add some fun to the generally grim mood. Even when things turn outrageously brutal, they find spots to include violent sight gags that would comfortably fit in a Three Stooges film.
A flare-up of tension in the last act, of the nail-biting variety, leads to even more violence. But, looking at the audience reaction to it at my screening, that kind of thing is either OK, or those viewers have become desensitized. They were giggling and screaming and applauding.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Joe Carnahan; directed by Eli Roth
With Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Norris, Camila Morrone, Elisabeth Shue