By: Steve Pulaski
Not since Fox was set to release Phone Booth amidst the Beltway sniper attacks in Washington D.C. or perhaps when the same studio released a bullet-hole-ridden teaser poster for their filmNeighborhood Watch in lieu of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin has a particular film graced theaters at such an inopportune time. Eli Roth's Death Wish was set to be released over Thanksgiving, but MGM delayed it, with speculation that the move had to do with the shooting in Las Vegas that occurred just weeks prior.
While MGM did make sure Roth's film was released at a time when the multiplexes were less crowded, the same can't be said for the current state of the public's social conscience, which is cluttered with thoughts of the horrific shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida and the subsequent gun control debate that has ensued. Certainly for some, Roth's film will infuriate given its unfortunate release date, while for others, a remake of the still-appreciated vigilante film from 1974 might come at the best time.
My opinion is a simpler one than both: there's never a good time to see a mediocre film.
Death Wish is bland and basic, not only as a remake of Michael Winner's gritty adaptation of Brian Garfield's novel, but as a film under the canon of someone as creative as Roth. While never being the biggest cheerleader for the gore-maestro's films, the passion in his films is as evident as his love for blood-lust. Cabin Fever was a favorable first-effort with several memorable instances of flesh-eating horror, and his latest, The Green Inferno, showed his interest in paying tribute to cannibal films of the 1970's. Death Wish, however, shows him at a crossroads with screenwriter Joe Carnahan's (The Grey) approach to the material. Carnahan's desire to show Chicago's eminently violent, criminal neighborhoods and the ineffectiveness of local law enforcement is undermined by Roth's motivation to bring torture porn theatrics. The ironic part is that Roth's moves to try and kickstart the annoyingly surface film provide the film with most of its entertainment.
Consider the scene where Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis), whose wife (Elisabeth Shue) has been murdered and his daughter (Camila Morrone) left in a coma after being brutally attacked in their home, walks up to a neighborhood dope-dealer known as the "Ice Cream Man." He gets his name from the source of his dope, which is a makeshift ice-cream freezer that sits before him on a sidewalk. Roth's camera follows Kersey's back as he proceeds toward the man while Chief Keef's booming drill anthem "Love Sosa" blares to set the mood. "Are you the 'Ice Cream Man?,'" Kersey asks him. "Yeah, and who the hell are you?," he quips back. "Your last customer," Kersey informs him. You know what comes next.
Roth's film needed more scenes like that, which mixed dopey with satisfying, and revenge with at least a marginally satisfying taste other than vanilla. Like Winner's film, the focus rests on Kersey in a state of "purgatory," as he describes, following the death of his wife and the brutal attack on his daughter. He can't sleep, he hates being home, and local area detectives (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) are at a loss for evidence on his case. Kersey soon finds himself fascinated by guns and gun culture, specifically after retrieving a handgun from a patient who arrives at the hospital before quickly succumbing to his fatal gunshot wounds. Kersey teaches himself how to use the weapon, and his first instance of being a "hero" comes when he stops a carjacking by shooting both of the perpetrators. A bystander's cell-phone video turns him into a viral sensation known as the "Grim Reaper," and Kersey continues to carry out his self-appointed role of taking the law into his own hands.
Another instance that shows us what the film could've been comes when Roth goes back to hisHostel days, staging an encounter between Kersey and one of his wife's killers in an auto-body shop. Kersey knocks the man unconscious, chains him underneath a vehicle, precariously propped in the air by a wooden plank, injects his leg with propofol, slices open his sciatic nerve, and pours a container of brake fluid into the wound. The entire scene is repulsive, but in a way that successfully makes you wince and grimace in horror. Roth and Carnahan needed to make a decision early on whether or not to respond to the idea of a man combating the violence in Chicago's neighborhoods with gun-play or Goldbergian torture tactics. Because no consensus is made and no consistency is achieved, the film plays like a commercial for the NRA in the lamest possible way, meaning both sides of the ongoing, neverending gun control debate are caricatured into both looking like impulsive fools. In a country where little progress is made on hot-button issues, this is the last thing we need, unless we're going to satirize stagnancy.
Adding to that, it should come as little surprise that Conservative "shock"-jock Mancow Muller is a recurring presence in the film, continuing the hyperactive schtick with which he's flooded Chicago radio with since the 1990s, when he actually managed to be humorous and relevant. Mancow and his radio show turn up just to pose a contrasting commentary to Sway Calloway's SiriusXM program, as the two hosts bloviate about whether or not "the grim reaper" and his actions are something the city of Chicago needs. If their commentary provided any substance to a film already in desperate need of some, I wouldn't be so dismissive. However, it's just as foolish and as sensational as you'd expect, and complimenting the source material, feels just as dated as the finished product.
The role of Paul Kersey could've maybe been given life by Liam Neeson. I think with another ten years of age, Jake Gyllenhaall could've suited the part with an ominous aura. I can only imagine what sense of dread and fear Michael Shannon would've found in a role that could largely be up to the actor to define. Bruce Willis, on the other hand, is entirely ineffective, sleepwalking through an unconvincing display of forced pathos and despondent sullenness. Even when he goes to impersonate the iconic gun-motion with his hand that Charles Bronson made so famous in the defining shot of the original film, it feels lazily executed. I'd like to think all the lightly inquisitive head-tilts and squinting Willis does in the film is him searching for a rhyme or reason in this stockpile of missed opportunities.
When reviewing both the original Death Wish and The Exterminator, another popular shoot-em-up from a bygone decade, I opined that the vigilante genre could and should make a comeback. It would all depend on timing and wit, and of course the directorial flare brought to the particular films. It already has the creative disadvantage of coming from a country where a shooting occurs every day and mass shootings are more-or-less to be expected, so the desensitization to violence one doesn't experience first-hand is a very real thing. For example, we need more films like the masterfully crafted Brawl in Cell Block 99 if we're going to revive the vigilante genre and give it some visual substance. We don't need regressive works like Death Wish, much less this cruel bastardization.