I haven’t seen the original Death Wish, the odd clip aside, and I don’t especially plan to remedy that, owing to an aversion to Charles Bronson when he isn’t in Once Upon a Time in the West and an aversion to Michael Winner when he wasn’t making ’60s comedies or Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirots.
I also have an aversion to Eli Roth, though (this is the first of his oeuvre I’ve seen, again the odd clip aside, as I have a general distaste for his oeuvre). And also, mildly to Bruce when he’s on autopilot (most of the last twenty years). So really, I probably shouldn’t have checked this one out. It was duly slated as a fascistic, right-wing rallying cry, even though the same slaters consider such behaviour mostly okay if the protagonist is super-powered and wearing a mask when taking justice into his (or her) own hands. The truth is, this remake is a quite serviceable, occasionally amusing little revenger, one that even has sufficient courage in its warped convictions that it allows Bruce to get off scot free.
There were various points when a mild whiff of expectation was attached to the Death Wish remake, back when Joe Carnahan – a writer-director forever seeming to promise more than he actually delivers – was masterminding the proceedings. He still gets a screenplay credit, but fell out of the project over disputes with Bruce on the direction it should take. You can argue there’s no need for this movie ever, of course, but that never stopped anyone who saw dollar signs hanging over a dormant property. And it isn’t exactly like it’s Straw Dogs, where someone’s remaking something with a controversial but positive reputation.
Bruce is Dr Paul Kersey, a trauma surgeon busy in the ER when a home invasion leaves his wife (Elizabeth Shue) dead and his daughter (Camila Morrone) in a coma. Kersey’s quite passive and unemotional at first – very Bruce, then – until detectives Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise continually fail to get their men, and the doc happens up a handy piece dropped by a trauma victim in the ER one night.
From there, the decisive justice of the Grim Reaper is unleashed, taking out carjackers and drug dealers and having his actions debated on the radio (attempting to pre-empt critiques by tackling the racial connotations head-on: “You got a white guy in a hoodie killing black people. You don’t have a problem with that?”)
Roth directs competently, but it’s clear his heart is much more in the horror and splatter elements – the home invasion; Bruce torturing Joe (Ronnie Gene Blevins) with brake fluid and crushing his brains beneath a pickup; performing home surgery on gunshot wound – than the police procedural side. Bruce’s first appearance suggests the absurdity of casting Bruce Campbell as a doctor in Intolerable Cruelty, but once you get past that, he’s having, by his eternally bored standards, a mildly good time.
Indeed, I have no idea what the Carnahan version would have been like, but at least Roth makes no pretence that this is a serious-minded analysis of vigilante justice. Nor does he care that it may be feeding into gun-lobby sentiments concerning self-protection, or fuelling fear-inducing stereotypes concerning personal safety.
There’s a very evident streak of humour shot through the movie; it could have done with more of that, even. Bruce finds a friend of his comatose daughter reading her Essays in Positive Economics by Milton Friedman (“I’m not sure that’s gonna help her wake up”), and fellow baldie Norris contributes his share of wisecracks (“Run ‘em over. Doesn’t count as a crime” he says of a windscreen washer; a note on a wall of open cases says “We’re gonna need a bigger board”).
Kersey’s shrink (Wendy Crewson) advises his improvement (“Well, whatever you’re doing, keep it up”; “Okay. I will” chuckles Bruce in reply). At one point, Kersey is at the mercy of The Fish (Jack Kesy) when a friendly bowling ball rolls off a top shelf and cracks his assailant on the head; it’s Three Stooges time! Such moments are surely evidence of comedy maestros Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s rewrite fingerprints.
Naturally, the villains are entirely repugnant and irredeemable, making their conscience-free murders all that much less unpalatable. Vincent D’Onofrio is completely wasted in a nothing part as Kersey’s brother. So much so, I felt sure, at one point, he would turn out to have been involved with the home invasion creeps. Proceedings climax in Bruce killing the most irredeemable of the irredeemable bad guys (Beau Knapp) with a VERY big gun while his daughter cowers under the stairs; perhaps unsurprisingly, this was a Liam Neeson movie at one point (imagine how well it would have gone down, in light of his recent remarks).
Entirely irresponsible filmmaking? Quite possibly. But there’s a hypocrisy in singling out this kind of material for condemnation when it suits, for not fitting an agenda. Either the argument is that movies don’t influence people or it isn’t; you can’t have it both ways. Really, Death Wish’s problem is that it’s merely serviceable. Perhaps if Alexander and Karaszweski had administered a page-one rewrite, we’d really have something to discuss. Oh, and how about they write a movie for Willis and Norris as jocular brothers? That might raise a few laughs.