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Death Wish is a fantasy about a 62-year-old bald man who can flip up his hoodie and suddenly become cool. By day, Paul Kersey (a somnambulant Bruce Willis) is a respected trauma surgeon. At night, the grieving widower is a vigilante dubbed the Grim Reaper. In a showy diptych, we see the two weapons of his trade: scalpels on top, bullets on bottom, a contradiction that ultimately means nothing to the script. The film, too, is simply focused on the power of tools. The zip-up sweatshirt lets Paul strut into the hippest Chicago clubs without anyone offering him a Metamucil. And his gun gives him confidence. Director Eli Roth spares us a hottie giving Paul a come-hither pucker. Instead, when a young woman spots Paul executing a car thief, she pegs the killer as in his mid-to-late-30s. Sweet, bro.
It’s an awful month to release an action movie where a good guy with a gun stands triumphant on a stack of corpses – even if you support the NRA. Death Wish insults both sides of the argument, including folks who insist our current gun laws are working just fine. “There must be a lot of paperwork?” asks Paul the buxom, camo-clad sales clerk at Jolly Roger’s firearms emporium, whose mascot is a steroidal, one-eyed wolf. “Pbbbbbbt, don’t worry,” she grins. As for the safety classes, “No one ever fails.”
This could be satire, but Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan refuse to take a stance. Ironically, a film about a guy with guts doesn’t have any itself. At least the 1974 original tried to justify why Charles Bronson’s “bleeding liberal” architect is delighted by his new gun, even as he flat-out admits it’s a Freudian extension of his penis. But Roth’s Death Wish is neither red nor blue – it’s gray. I’d respect it more if it was honest propaganda, but all it does is flatline the politics and saturate the pathos. Now, his wife (Elizabeth Shue) is saintlier, his daughter (Camila Morrone) is younger, and his family literally gets attacked while baking him a birthday cake, as though losing your loved ones in a home invasion needed an extra sugar glaze.
With his wife in the grave and his daughter in the hospital, Willis pads colorlessly around Chi-town looking for someone to shoot. To him, black and blue lives don’t matter. In the opening scene, a dying cop is wheeled into his surgery room. Paul almost helps him, then stops. Too late to bother. Out in the hall, he tells the dead man’s partner, “We did everything we could.” It’s a lie.
In the 1974 Death Wish, men like Paul were the villains. Sure, it’s baby Jeff Goldblum in his Jughead hat who bashes Bronson’s wife in the head. But the film apportions anger for the doctors who don’t deign to update him on her status until it’s too late to see her alive, and, of course, the apathetic cops wallpapering their offices with crimes they can’t solve. Callousness, not criminality, kills civilizations. Goldblum is just carrion.
Bronson gets politicized cheering for a kiddie western skit where the sheriff saves the day. He’s reminded people used to believe in heroes, though director Michael Winner smartly showed the cowboy actors lip-synching their pre-recorded speeches. His inspirational battle between right and wrong is phoney, and in the end, everyone gets up unscathed.
If that Paul was inspired by myths, this modern one was inspired by, well, Charles Bronson. Willis simply embraces murder like a man who saw Death Wish II, where Bronson’s once-naive Korean war conscientious objector turns full-on serial killer. As an actor, Willis has been fake-shooting people for 30 years and can’t rewind his career enough to pretend this is fresh. He’s as flatlined as his corpses. What should be shocking is banal – which, in turn, feels sickening for feeling so banal.
Early on, Willis’s Paul makes the choice to withhold evidence from detectives Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise. His trigger finger’s so itchy he sabotages the police’s ability to solve his wife’s case. Instead, the cops pursue the Grim Reaper, a script choice that has the side-effect of making the cops look so good at their jobs that Willis could have just stuck to scrubs. Do the math and Death Wish shows that every act of good guy movie violence just makes things worse, starting with his daughter’s attempt to use her krav maga training against three burglars who only intended to steal some watches. It’s an interesting equation if Roth actually wanted us to calculate it, but I suspect he’d rather erase all the bits that don’t get rowdy hoots. (And in my screening, Death Wish got plenty of applause.)
Is Paul a bad guy? A talk radio DJ (real-life host Sway Calloway) shouts his confusion into the ether, and adds, “You got a white guy in a hoodie killing black people, you don’t have a problem with that?” The movie is forced to ask that question – the line thunks against the screen like a crumpled-up preview audience test score – but Roth and Willis don’t have an answer. All they have is a volcanologist’s sense that men need to explode, that Willis’s murdered family and the gluten-free energy bar Norris flings in the trash are the two ends of a rope that’s strangling male pride. Cue several shots of macho wedges of deep dish pizza, and the suspicion that the cops are really just chasing Paul to give him a high five.
Willis’s only line reading that rings true is when he confesses to his brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) that he accomplished every male task – get a good job, get rich, refuse to punch a fellow soccer dad who calls him a “pussy” – and yet he still failed at keeping his family safe. It’s an impossible checklist and for a minute, you feel for the guy. Then he flips up his hood and swaggers back into the night, oblivious to the realization that his biggest weapon isn’t his stolen sweater or the pistol in his belt, but who he is without any of it: a 62-year-old white man who, in Hollywood fiction and in real-life American courts, can hunt strangers and take a proud bow.
- Death Wish is released in the US on 2 March and in the UK on 6 April
Source: The Guardian
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