Death Wish

Review by Elena Lazic @elazic

Directed by

Eli Roth

Starring

Bruce Willis

Anticipation.

Eli Roth can be interesting, and the original film is pretty good.

Enjoyment.

Infuriatingly bland.

In Retrospect.

Just watch the original instead.

Eli Roth and Bruce Willis combine forces for a frustratingly bland remake of Michael Winner’s vigilante classic.

For seemingly promoting retributive violence, vigilantism and the right to bear arms, the controversial Charles Bronson-fronted Death Wish franchise holds a negative reputation it undoubtedly deserves. Looking back at the series now, perhaps the more severe judgement should be reserved for the cartoonish and reactionary politics of parts two through five than the morally ambiguous original.

The sequels, made in quick succession eight years after the box office success of Michael Winner’s 1974 effort, were produced by Cannon Films, then owned by iconic B-movie producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. The Israeli cousins tapped into the ’80s demand for brutal bargain basement action with an unusual business model: at film markets, they would rely on their legendary salesmanship skills and beautifully designed promotional materials to pre-sell films which often only had a title, basic concept and star attached. Money generated from pre-sales was then used to finance the actual production of the films themselves, and the end result invariably favoured spectacle over substance.

By contrast Winner’s film was a Hollywood affair, penned by Anatomy of a Murder screenwriter Wendell Mayes, and adapted from a popular source novel. For all its faults, the original Death Wish still manages to rise above the mindless thrill and unavoidable mediocrity of its sequels, the melancholy of the film shining through despite Charles Bronson’s tendency to mistake total stillness for gravity. Although Bronson’s vengeful Paul Kersey is freed by the police at the end of the film, his murderous spree is framed as the downward spiral of a grieving man, rather than the badass solution to society’s ills.

With this context in mind, the prospect of a Death Wish remake at a time when the issue of gun violence in America seems to have come to a head may seem a little less insensitive than it did at first glance. And with Eli Roth at the helm we might even have hoped for a critique of male entitlement in a society gone mad, something akin to the moral darkness and biting satire of his earlier Hostel films. Yet regardless of whether the radio and TV debates which punctuate the film are intended as a comment on the media’s bloodthirsty exploitation of tragedy or a realistic representation of how these types of situations unfold, the lack of any real insight makes for a frustrating viewing experience.

Although it mercifully omits the rape of Kersey’s daughter and the queasy representation of her boyfriend – a ‘weak’ man who relies on Kersey for everything and even calls him ‘dad’, much to the latter’s chagrin – Roth’s film also strips away the ‘rational’ motivation behind Kersey’s ensuing rampage. In Winner’s film, Bronson’s Kersey acts out of grief, quickly getting a taste for killing ‘bad’ guys. Herbie Hancock’s beautiful, melancholy score heightens the pervasive sense of tragedy, and by the end of the film we empathise with a broken man in desperate need of psychiatric help. Willis’ Kersey, meanwhile, isn’t motivated by rage but by the realisation that he is able get away with murder, along with the belief that this is the best and indeed only way to clean up the streets.

As such – and as difficult as this may be to imagine – Willis’ take on the character is much limper than Bronson’s; his Kersey allows himself to be carried away by events instead of facing them head on. The film is sluggishly paced too, half-heartedly siding with its supposedly reasonable anti-hero instead of adopting a decisive point of view. The simplistic logic with which Kersey slyly justifies acquiring weapons and attacking people could have been amusing and incisive. At best it calls for a knowing smirk.

Despite the controversy it has stirred Stateside, Death Wish isn’t really worth getting angry about. Far from the irresponsible, pro-gun propaganda we were warned against, Roth has delivered a bland and unfocused film – a missed opportunity more than anything else.

Published 5 Apr 2018

Tags: Bruce Willis Eli Roth

Anticipation.

Eli Roth can be interesting, and the original film is pretty good.

Enjoyment.

Infuriatingly bland.

In Retrospect.

Just watch the original instead.

Read More

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