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‘Death Wish’ should not have been granted

March 6, 2018
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It’s easy to feel like Hollywood has run out of ideas. The constant churn of remakes and reboots, the recycling and repurposing … everything old is old again. It’s not always a bad thing – sometimes these projects breathe new life into a worthwhile concept.

But sometimes you get “Death Wish.”

Noted torture porn impresario Eli Roth took it upon himself to remake the 1974 Charles Bronson-starring vigilante action film for reasons that frankly confound the imagination. The notion of an affluent white man taking to the streets with a gun to exact some sort of self-styled justice was a bit troublesome even 40 years ago, but in today’s climate, it’s downright unsettling.

You could maybe see your way to forgiving some of the story’s problematic nature if the movie was any good. But it is not. It is dull and derivative, plodding in pace and featuring a handful of cringeworthy comedic moments (some intentional, some not).

A glowering Bruce Willis stars as Paul Kersey, a surgeon living in Chicago with his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue, “Battle of the Sexes”) and his teenage daughter Jordan (Camila Marrone, “Never Goin’ Back”). It’s an idyllic life, even if Paul’s brother Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio, TV’s “Daredevil”) is a bit of a mooch.

All of that comes to a horrible end when a group of thugs attempt to rob the Kersey home while Lucy and Jordan are there alone. The situation escalates into tragedy, leaving Lucy dead and Jordan in a coma. Paul initially tries to work within the system, reaching out to investigating detectives Raines (Dean Norris, “The Book of Henry”) and Jackson (Kimberly Elise, “Almost Christmas”), but soon grows frustrated with the lack of progress in his case.

And so, he decides to take the law into his own hands. He walks the streets, seeking out and shooting criminals. A video of one of the early incidents goes viral, leading to him being dubbed the “Grim Reaper” and becoming a polarizing figure, central to the gun violence debate surrounding the city. All the while, he’s constantly searching for clues that will lead him to the men who killed his wife … and law enforcement is searching for clues that will lead them to the Grim Reaper.

However, Kersey soon learns that his anger alone doesn’t make him a match for some of the violent criminals against whom he seeks to face off. There are consequences to his actions that could ultimately result in even more danger for him and his loved ones. All he can do is hope that he can find a way to survive to the end of his one-man crusade.

There’s something decidedly off-putting about sitting in a movie theater in 2018 and watching a middle-aged white guy in a hoodie shooting young black men. It’s the kind of revenge fantasy that is unsettling in all the wrong ways. Yes, it’s just a movie – but it’s more than that too.

There’s no denying Roth’s affinity for this kind of genre schlockiness, but stuff like this really accentuates the reality that he’s little more than a cut-rate Tarantino wannabe, a maker of pastiches that don’t even bother personalizing their influences. Flashes of gore and heavy-handed winks to the audience aren’t nearly enough to save this film.

Willis spends most of the movie operating without any sort of affect; there’s a blankness that permeates his performance. Even his most emotional moments feel oddly flat. It’s clearly a deliberate choice, but it’s one that doesn’t really work. His disengagement from the role only adds to the audience’s disengagement from the movie. D’Onofrio at least seems like he’s trying, though he’s not given a lot to work with. Shue is fine in her brief stretch of screen time, while Marrone is a cookie-cutter teenager. Norris basically leans on grizzled cop tropes, while Elise is basically rendered a non-factor.

“Death Wish” feels painfully unnecessary, the sort of movie that has no real reason to exist. Even if you can set aside the general unpleasantness of its conceit – which you almost certainly can’t – the film just isn’t very good. It trudges along, beat by beat, slouching its way toward an unsatisfying conclusion.

Long story short, this is a bad movie with a worse message arriving at an even worse moment. You really ought to give it a miss – you deserve better.

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