You won’t see a more subversive film all year than Eli Roth’s “Death Wish.”
How can a remake of the 1974 vigilante classic be so bold? It’s simple. The remake doesn’t tinker with the vigilante formula beyond concessions to our digital age. No hand wringing, no attempts to bring social justice to the classic tale.
The very last word you’d use to describe the new “Death Wish” is “woke.”
The film goes much further, though. It gives a long, wet raspberry to the scourge that is political correctness. Take away the ideological dustups, and you’re left with a premium crowd pleaser with a kiss of ’80s action thrown in.
Bruce Willis takes over for Charles Bronson as Dr. Paul Kersey. He’s a mild-mannered surgeon who’d rather swallow his pride that square off against a local bully. His suburban bliss is shattered when a group of thugs break into his home while he’s at work.
They murder his adoring wife (Elisabeth Shue) and leave their teenage daughter (Camila Morrone) in a coma.
Paul is shattered, but he assumes law enforcement will nab the killers at the very least. That process begins at a snail’s pace, planting a seed for vengeance that grows alongside his rage. The sight of a large bulletin board filled with Post-it type notes representing “open cases” feeds that transformation.
We know what happens next. A gun-slinging Paul starts taking out the trash, vigilante style. So why bother with a remake in the first place?
For starters, the vigilante template is timeless. Justice is never swift enough for those broken by criminals. Setting the movie in Chicago, a city awash in crime, gives the film real-life gravitas.
Willis has a well-earned reputation for phoning in a role or three. Here, he begins with a hushed tone suggesting he’s ready for some speed dialing. Once those thugs target his family he finds a second, more satisfying gear.
Only he’s no rootin’ shootin’ vigilante. He’s clumsy, forcing confrontations that quickly place him in harm’s way. And he doesn’t go from Everyman to Superman as other vigilante movies do. His evolution is gradual, the pain giving way to something raw… and empowering.
Forget about toxic masculinity. He feels like he failed his family, and it’s time to do something about it.
DID YOU KNOW: Roger Ebert dubbed Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” “propaganda for private gun ownership.”
Roller coasters have nothing on director Eli Roth’s resume. Here, he delivers both the genre staples and a brisk sense of comic timing.
Joe Carnahan’s script pokes a stick at PC conventions in between darkly comic morsels. The cop on the killers’ trail (“Breaking Bad’s” Dean Norris) bites into a gluten-free snack before grimacing in disgust. A character can be seen reading C.S. Lewis, while another name drops a tome by conservative icon Milton Friedman.
Paul even curses out a squeegee man interrupting his commute. We warned you “Death Wish” had a subversive streak.
“Death Wish” clearly paints Paul as the aggrieved hero, but vigilantism doesn’t come away unscathed. The narrative features talk radio asides about the man dubbed the “Grim Reaper.” Is his killing spree isn’t just another side of the criminal coin?
Roth may be maddeningly inconsistent, but his grasp of pop culture boosts the film immeasurably. Using YouTube clips to modernize the story feels right -- and delivers one of many killer punch lines.
We warned you “Death Wish” had a subversive streak.
He still should have snipped a few unnecessary moments entirely. A sequence involving Paul’s father-in-law (the great Lou Cariou) is just plain silly, not to mention unnecessary. And the machinations required to arrive at the feel-better ending are similarly tacky.
Paul dons a hoodie during his vigilante escapades to escape detection. Plenty will connect that sartorial choice with the late Trayvon Martin, something the film directly acknowledges.
Roth goes ahead with it all the same. He also highlights crucial lines like this, the kind that register with many consumers:
“The police only arrive after the crime has taken place.”
The home invasion sequence, relentlessly brutal in the Bronson original, is toned down here. Roth, who all but invented the torture porn sub-genre, can’t keep his grindhouse sentiments at bay for long.
FAST FACT: The 1974 “Death Wish” brought in $22 million at the box office. The fifth and final film in the original Bronson series, “Death Wish V: The Face of Death,” only managed $1.7 million 20 years later.
The final act features some gruesome visuals along with a nod to Willis’ action heyday. Yes, Carnahan hand-delivers a totally ’80s line to our hero. It’s silly and perfect all at once.
Progressive film scribes pounced on the first “Death Wish” trailer. They slammed it as fascist, racist and worst. The film itself? Paul’s good friend at the hospital is black (an underused Mike Epps). The villains staring down his increasingly accurate gun barrel? They’re black, white and Latino.
One tense sequence finds Paul coming to the rescue of a young black woman who thanks the hooded hero for saving her life.
Roth and co. shrewdly arranged these pieces to avoid charges of racism. Oh, some will raise the issue all the same. Audiences will be too busy cheering Paul on to hear them. Or care.
HiT or Miss: “Death Wish” is more than just a crass remake. It’s a blistering reminder why some movie templates never grow old.
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