This weekend marks the debut of two violent thrillers with heroes hellbent on revenge for highly personal reasons.
“Red Sparrow” stars Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian star ballerina who is forced to train as a killer whore for the state. She executes a twisted plan for revenge on those who reduced her to that existence.
“Death Wish” is a remake of a grisly 1974 cult classic starring Charles Bronson that inspired four sequels. A mild-mannered surgeon (Bruce Willis) is pushed into buying a gun and cleaning up the streets when he fears cops can’t find the thugs who killed his wife and raped his teenage daughter.
Hear these two descriptions and you might think that “Red Sparrow” is the classy film of the two, sure to put smart writing ahead of grisly violence.
You’d be completely wrong.
“Sparrow” puts Lawrence’s Dominika Egorova into the heart of a twisty plot filled with double-crosses and back stabbings both metaphorical and literal. She’s assigned to track down an American woman who’s attempting to sell off Russian secrets.
Before she can take on that mission, which focuses on getting in good on multiple levels with an American agent (Joel Edgerton), Dominika must learn how to seduce, kill and both inflict and withstand torture.
Because it’s such a depressing slog, filled with its own sense of inflated self-importance, I’ll spare most of the plot description because I want to save space for my raving positive opinion on “Death Wish.”
It’s sad and disturbing to see a young, accomplished actress like Lawrence—who’s already won an Oscar and hasn’t even hit 30 yet— feel she has to “prove” something by getting naked, raped, tortured and beaten for a role. Her “Red Sparrow” character displays a nasty ability to kill people with blunt objects and even torture them by peeling their skin off with an electric grafter.
What does it say about our society that Hollywood feels the only way to stand out or do something fresh with a spy movie is to come up with ever more sickening, soul-deadening forms of torture? What we see and what we spew out into the planet’s culture does affect people, and will come back to haunt us.
Somewhere out there, an ISIS recruit is going to watch this movie and think “Hey, wouldn’t that be fun?”
On the other hand, “Death Wish” is surprisingly tasteful and responsible in its use of violence. It still maintains an exciting, fun atmosphere that incorporates thought-provoking discussions of how far should a person go to protect their family, and how far we should extend our Second Amendment rights when the police are too overwhelmed to be effective.
Willis plays Paul Kersey, a happily married Chicago resident (a wise switch since the original’s New York setting has become more family-friendly). His wife and teenage daughter are home alone one night when three intruders bust in to rob them. They fight back, and Paul’s wife (Elisabeth Shue) is killed while their daughter (Camila Morrone) is beaten into a coma.
Paul tries to let the cops solve the crime. Progress is slow, and when he sees a wall filled with index cards of unsolved murders, he decides to take action. The resulting mayhem that he perpetrates sets the cops racing after him as well, while local talk-radio hosts debate over the righteousness or wrongheadedness of his crusade.
…a film like “Death Wish” is unbelievably cathartic
“Death Wish” is a pleasant surprise on many levels. First, Willis wakes up and delivers a fully fleshed-out, charismatic performance for the first time in at least five years. This is the kind of role he does best, and it’s great to see a master movie star back in action.
Second, director Eli Roth (“Hostel,” “The Green Inferno”) seemed like a disastrous choice for this film. Why? His reputation as the king of “torture porn” movies that glorified torture of all stripes.
Here, he shocks more with his restraint, as he leaves the murder of Paul’s wife off-screen and also never makes it clear if Paul’s daughter was even raped – refreshing improvements from the grisly on-camera crimes of the Bronson original.
He also delivers a film that works with crisp finesse and maximum efficiency on every level.
I’m as anti-gun as a guy can get (despite being ardently conservative on most issues), and I still loved this movie. No matter what your political leanings are, it’s impossible to consider modern American society without a sense that things are going very wrong. Crime, homelessness and the opioid crisis all spreading like wildfire.
FAST FACT: The 1974 vigilante classic “Death Wish” marked the third collaboration between star Charles Bronson and director Michael Winner.
A film like “Death Wish” provides a cathartic group experience in a theater. People gather in the dark and fantasize vicariously about being able to just handle the evils of society themselves. As a video in the movie shows Paul, a gunshot can solve a problem in three seconds that years of courtroom appeals might never achieve.
Of course, I don’t believe in people taking to the streets with guns in reality. I think most guns ought to be banned, period. But in the dark of a theater, gazing at a screen and imagining a world in which stand-up guys like Paul Kersey make a stand for all of us, a film like “Death Wish” is unbelievably cathartic.
Most critics have hated on “Death Wish” for being pro-gun, but I have no doubt this is going to be a smash because the average moviegoer wants to feel empowered, even if it’s for two hours at a time.