“Death Wish” is no masterpiece, but it certainly doesn’t deserve its measly 13% approval rating at RottenTomatoes.
Since I don’t read actual reviews before writing my own, I can only surmise that the current debate over gun violence is driving this response, with critics siding against a film about pistol-packing vengeance.
A remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson film that spawned four sequels, the new movie stars Bruce Willis as Paul Kersey, a Chicago surgeon who takes matters into his own hands after his family is assaulted.
Shortly after the attack, Kersey’s grieving father-in-law tells him plainly that if you want to keep your loved ones safe, you have to do it yourself; and this sentiment is then bolstered by a gunshop ad insisting that seconds count when police response is usually more a matter of minutes.
Your reaction to “Death Wish” will depend on how you feel about this issue -- and about a sequence stressing the variety of available weapons and the ease of passing background checks (a scene which must surely have been filmed long before last month’s Parkland shooting).
Personally, I’m not wild about vigilante justice; but, like many similar films, “Death Wish” plays heavily on our natural desire for revenge -- and on the even more satisfying sight of bad guys getting what they deserve.
Willis hones his acting chops here with more room to breathe than he usually gets -- including winsome smiles in early family scenes and then, later on, some very engaging tears; the popular actor has rarely been better, and he goes a long way toward smoothing over our discomfort with Kersey’s ugly vindictiveness.
Willis gets solid support from Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”), an excellent Vincent D’Onofrio, the veteran Len Cariou and, in one short scene, Stephanie Janusauskas as a young family friend.
Together with solid direction by Eli Roth, they pull us past the many implausibilities. Chief among these is that Kersey gets far too good, far too quickly, at fast-moving gunplay.
Even more problematic is the film’s refusal to grapple with psychological effects of brutal, bloody murder on an upper-class doctor who has apparently never even held a gun before. It’s fair to say this is a film utterly without nuance -- an aspect it actually flaunts in one scene where Kersey’s clueless therapist urges him to go on doing whatever it is that’s helping him feel better.
Compounding this is Roth’s penchant for gory violence, which goes way over the top in one garage scene; the director seems to assume his viewers will simply eat this up -- but my own response was kinda the opposite.
If Roth wanted to dump such blood-and-guts into our laps, he might at least have had Kersey start to question himself.
But the doctor never does so -- not even when he seems to be inciting copycat killers, or after one bathroom fight that surely injured innocent bystanders.
This is a huge problem. And the fact that Willis’ charisma helps us overlook these moral issues -- well, that might be an even bigger one.
directed by Eli Roth
Run time: 107 min.
* * 1/2 (out of four)
Rated R for strong bloody violence, and language throughout