The Movie Waffler New Release Review - DEATH WISH | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - DEATH WISH

death wish bruce willis review
A Chicago surgeon becomes a murderous vigilante in the wake of his wife's murder.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Eli Roth

Starring: Bruce Willis, Vincent D'Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue, Camila Morrone, Dean Norris, Beau Knapp, Kimberly Elise

death wish bruce willis poster

Back in the '80s, moviegoers mocked the idea of Bruce Willis being cast in an upcoming movie by the name of Die Hard. With four seasons of the hit show Moonlighting under his belt, Willis had established himself as one of prime time's greatest comic talents, making it impossible to imagine him crawling through air vents in a blood-stained wife-beater while gunning down generic Euro-baddies. This was the 'tough tits' era of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, when our action heroes were larger than life slabs of testosterone, but overnight Willis changed all that, establishing himself as the dominant action star of the following decade.

It's ironic then that when director Eli Roth announced he would be casting Willis in the lead role of a Death Wish remake, we once again mocked the actor's casting. Prior to Die Hard, the idea of Willis playing an everyman who gets sucked into the world of vigilantism would have been relatively easy to buy, but today he carries decades of action movie baggage. As such, Willis here is much like Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick's flawed adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining, arriving as the character he's supposed to gradually transition into.

death wish bruce willis

Of course, when Charles Bronson was cast as Paul Kersey in Michael Winner's 1975 original, he too was fully established as an action man, but in the '70s our action heroes didn't resemble He-Man figures; they were wiry types like Bronson and Steve McQueen, so it was easy enough to buy Bronson as the mild-mannered architect he begins the film as. When we meet Willis in Roth's film he's a hulking badass whom no street thug in their right mind would want to cross. Originally, the 1975 movie was set to be directed by Sidney Lumet and star Jack Lemmon as Kersey - what a missed opportunity!

Willis's Kersey is a surgeon rather than an architect, which is an interesting conceit - a man who has dedicated his life to saving lives (even those of murderers, as we see in the opening vignette), now compelled to end them - but like all the half-formed notions in Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan's film, it never really amounts to anything.

Gone is the original film's graphic rape scene (which gave a young actor named Jeff Goldblum his start), replaced by the offscreen shooting of Kersey's wife (Elizabeth Shue) and daughter (Camila Morrone), the former dying instantly, the latter placed in a coma. The ensuing narrative is a jacked up version of the events of Winner's movie, but with one crucial deviation. In the original, Kersey never tracked down the men who killed his wife, instead taking out his anger on whatever random targets he could justify, becoming seduced by the very violence which destroyed his life and neglecting his daughter. Roth's film has no such nuance, instead following a bland procedural format as Kersey follows clues to lead him one by one to the murderers of his wife while evading the growing suspicion of a pair of cops (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise, as generic a movie cop duo as you could conjure).

death wish bruce willis

Throughout his career and very public life, Michael Winner always gave you the sense that he was a Jew who craved acceptance by WASP society while also mocking its values, photographed dining with upper-crust toffs while battling it out with moral crusaders of both left and right wing persuasions in TV debates regarding onscreen sex and violence. In many ways, Roth has positioned himself as a modern day Winner, another Jewish filmmaker who likes to rub the WASPs the wrong way while also hoping they turn out to see his movies, and that's never been more evident than in Death Wish. Roth's portrayal of Middle America is positively cartoonish, a Smallville populated by gun-toting farmers, silicone-implanted peroxide gun sellers and blond soccer moms.

With his hard to digest cannibal thriller The Green Inferno, Roth trolled white liberal do-gooders; here he turns his focus on their conservative neighbours. Many commentators ignorantly wrote off Roth's film as some sort of right wing wank fantasy before a trailer had even dropped, which is way off the mark. In his cack-handed manner, Roth is critical of America's attitude to guns, with a gun-store owner laughing off Kersey's inquiry about the paperwork he has to fill in to purchase an assault rifle. In his first encounter with crims, Kersey is injured not by his opponents, but by the recoil of his own gun. Later, an innocent man is caught in the crossfire when Kersey engages in a public gun duel. Roth also critiques the racist double standards of police investigations, with Norris's detective openly admitting he's prioritising Kersey's wife's murder over the dozens of cases involving black victims.

death wish bruce willis

As the film progresses however, any political insight is discarded in favour of poorly staged action and of course, with this being a Roth film, over the top torture scenes. Halfway through and the movie becomes indistinguishable from the straight to VOD action dreck Willis now makes a living from, and you begin to get a real appreciation of what Winner was doing with his much maligned original. Where Winner's film had moody cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz that captured the oppressive grime of '70s New York, Roth's has bland digital photography that never creates a sense of place, despite being set in a city (Chicago) that has inherited New York's old reputation as America's murder metropolis. Where Winner's film had an era-defining jazz fusion score by the great Herbie Hancock, Roth scores his montages with cock rock and gives us hip-hop whenever Kersey takes a trip to the ghetto. Where Winner's film respected the audience's ability to watch the change in Kersey's character, Roth's gives him a brother (Vincent D'Onofrio) whose sole purpose as a character is to verbalise the film's themes and make sure we haven't missed anything while texting the babysitter.

Based on the quality of his films, it's easy to dismiss Roth as a fraud - the horror director equivalent of the teenage girl who wears a Ramones t-shirt in hopes of impressing that guitarist she fancies - but if you've seen him speak passionately about movies on the many DVD extras he pops up in, you know he eats and sleeps genre cinema. For all its flaws, and in spite of its overwhelming tedium, Death Wish is the first Roth film that feels like it's made by someone with something to say, even if he expresses his thoughts in the most obvious of fashion before getting distracted with the glee of smashing a villain's head with a car jack.

Death Wish is in UK/ROI cinemas April 6th.