directed by Eli Roth
Eli Roth's new Death Wish remake, the first mainstream action movie to be headlined by Bruce Willis in years, seems to be sitting well with audiences, who've returned half of its $30 million budget in the first week, but not so well with critics.
Death Wish isn’t so inept as its Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest (it’s hovering around 15%), and Bruce Willis isn’t so bad, but neither one of them is particularly good. The brutal but not-so-kinetic action of the story, seemingly tailor-made as a nostalgic, mild, modern version of Willis’s action exploits of the past, works only to remind us that he’s no longer what he was. And it isn’t just the fact that decades have passed and he’s not in his physical prime anymore. That’s not even really an issue. Look at what Clint Eastwood did as director, producer, and star of 2008’s Gran Torino. Marketed as an action movie, as Eastwood’s return to the tough-guy roles that made him famous, Gran Torino is an action movie – and a very good one – that happens to not have any action. It’s a swan song to his old action roles that emphasizes how the punching and the shooting was only ever a portion of Eastwood’s allure: what we loved was him. His surliness, his scowl, the lip-cocking contempt and the growling. It’s a study in what makes for a leading man.
Willis once had all that. Hard to tell, now, if he still has some vestige of that 1980s charisma, the bouncing vulgar pep made him a megastar after Die Hard, or is it just that he looks so familiar in a leading role, after decades of delivering the goods, that now we’re being tricked into thinking he still deserves it. But even aside from that: not only does the movie emphasize how far he’s fallen, or how much interest he’s lost, it’s also ill-served by Willis’s smirking, brow-bending, head-cocking steeliness, which isn't helpful to what, in 2018, is apparently incumbent on any gun-blasting action movie: a point.
As far as remakes go, this one’s removed enough from its source material – the brutal, brooding, slow-burning 1974 thriller starring Charles Bronson – to feel like it might be called for. Themes of masculinity, guilt, crime and violence could be explored now in a complicated 2018 landscape. Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 Targets, a dramatization of the University of Texas’s clock-tower shooting two years prior, was shocking and resonant and because mass murder with a high-powered weapon, committed by a self-righteous American man, was not yet a weekly event. People didn’t strafe churches with machine guns on a Sunday morning or unload on concertgoers from a hotel window or rip five-year-olds apart with military weapons or creep into movie theaters with tactical gear and smoke bombs and rifles. Today they do. But the movie doesn’t seem mindful of this.
Bruce Willis plays an ER surgeon named Paul Kersey whose wife (Elizabeth Shue) is murdered by burglars. Their daughter (Camila Morrone) is hospitalized with head injuries, comatose for days. It’s now, with the house to himself, that Willis embarks on his vigilante murder spree. He also visits a therapist in brief scenes that do nothing but allow Willis to communicate, with exposition, the feelings he can’t be bothered to emote.
Willis’s recent reputation for being a pugnacious and uncooperative presence on set can’t help but inform a viewing of his recent work. Director Kevin Smith has recorded hours of anecdotes about what a nightmare he was on the set of 2010’s Cop Out, and Sylvester Stallone called Willis “greedy and lazy” on Twitter when the action star, in a flourish of Brandonian chutzpah, demanded one million dollars a day for four days of work on The Expendables 3 – whereupon he was promptly replaced by Harrison Ford. And it looks here like he might have made some progress. Willis gives an impassioned monologue in the third act of Death Wish (that it's cliché is hardly his fault) and even musters tears in a few scenes. Otherwise, he plays Kersey as his reputation would suggest: lazily. His grief manifests as gazing into the pool with a stuff upper lip and a row of empty American brews at his feet. The way tough guys grieve. He’s also stiff and quiet in his handling of surgery, therapy, vengeance…
In Death Wish he goes through the motions, it’s fine, he delivers – but he only ever seems bemused when he ought to be engaged, cautious when he ought to be terrified.
And it seems like director Eli Roth, a terrifically verbose and passionate interview subject who built his name with 2005’s Hostel (which, appearing just a year after James Wan’s Saw, helped lubricate the sockets of eye-rolling critics who denounced the new wave of horror – I think wrongly – as “torture porn”), really wants his new Death Wish to be relevant, and to showcase a thumb on the pulse of modern America. The action is peppered with occasional cuts to split-screen commentary, from talking heads on TV and radio, about the racial component of Kersey’s vigilantism (he’s identified, from a viral video, as a white man, and his first few victims are black). We see on-air debates about whether the law should be taken into a citizen’s hands. Roth wants his Kersey to operate with a moral certainty that isn’t pathological, wants him to be an everyman and an action hero, a good guy and a murderer. But to bring those aspect to life would make for a much brainier, longer, more complicated movie. Roth isn’t incapable of making that movie, but his priority here is just to entertain his audience, much as his recent Green Inferno, a horror movie about young activists being killed by cannibalistic natives (which also generated some balking questions about what exactly this filmmaker’s trying to say), was meant to shock.
Which normally is fine for an action movie. But Death Wish – no doubt to the horror of its publicity team – is a movie that, though crafted as escapist entertainment, only makes us more conscious of the real world.
Roth’s film was postponed from its original November release in 2017 following the Las Vegas shooting in October, where over 50 people were killed at an outdoor concert by a single gunman (whose one drunken photo, recycled through the news for days, doesn’t look like Willis, but also doesn’t look so unlike Willis). And now, with the movie being released on the immediate heels of a massacre at Parkland, Florida, where a 19-year-old male killed 17 people at his former high school with an AR-15 (a weapon whose efficiency in massacres is actually referenced in the movie), Death Wish, with its fetishistic closeups of a handgun being disassembled and reassembled and its story of a man redeeming his sense of self, and atoning for his failure as a household protector, by shooting people, fails to present itself as a morality tale, or to even suggest moral ambiguity. Its timing makes such posturing look naïve and ridiculous and maybe even, at worst, poisonous.
Eli Roth has a knack for bringing an edgy sensibility, a certain intelligence, to mediocre movies. He isn’t quite doing that here, but it’s still a moderately enjoyable title to his credit – felled, unfortunately, by an actor whose loyalty is more to the paycheck than to the craft (a few more years of this and Bruce Willis will be Steven Seagal), bad timing, and muddy intentions.
Listening now and then to one of Eli Roth’s feverish, insightful, long-form interviews gives the impression that maybe the best channel for his energies at the moment would be to write a book of essays about film. I hope he does that. Because two years meditating on his craft, studying it, will almost certainly bolster his talent into something formidable, and on top of a great book, we might have a really noteworthy filmmaker at the end of it.
Alex Sorondo is a writer and film critic living in Miami and the host of the Thousand Movie Project. His fiction has been published in First Inkling Magazine and Jai-Alai Magazine.