Monday, May 28, 2018

"Death Wish" (2018): review

[NB: some spoilers.]

Directed by horrormeister Eli Roth (who played "the Bear Jew" in Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds") and starring Bruce Willis, Vincent D'Onofrio, the inimitable Dean Norris, Elisabeth Shue, and Kimberly Elise, 2018's "Death Wish" is a remake of the Charles Bronson classic vigilante-revenge flick from 1974. The 70s were a time when "taking the law into your own hands" movies were gaining popularity: Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry," about a cop who has no regard for criminals' rights, also came out during this period.

Willis plays Dr. Paul Kersey, a trauma surgeon who works at an inner-city hospital in Chicago but lives out in the richie-rich suburbs with his wife Lucy (Shue) and college-bound daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone). Kersey, true to his Hippocratic oath, is impartial in terms of whom he tries to save: one moment, he's working on a dying police officer; the next, he's working on the lowlife who shot the officer. This impartiality goes out the window, however, when a trio of thieves tries robbing the Kersey household. The robbery goes wrong, and both Lucy and Jordan are shot while Paul is still working downtown. The two are brought into the ER of Paul's hospital, much to Paul's horror; Lucy dies, but Jordan is left in a coma, having taken a bullet to the back of the head. Paul's brother Frank (D'Onofrio), who has a reputation as a bit of a moocher, is all sympathy. Detectives Kevin Raines and Leonore Jackson (Norris and Elise, respectively) are put on the Kersey case, but the detectives have little to go on.

Thus begins Paul Kersey's descent into darkness. He's receiving therapy and talking about the helplessness, anger, and frustration he feels, but he's also acquiring a gun and learning how to use it in his spare time. When he feels he's finally ready, he begins to walk the streets, shooting evildoers when he runs across them. Paul dresses in a hoodie during these vengeful patrols, and a few people film him on their cell-phone cameras, thus earning him a viral reputation. Paul is dubbed "The Grim Reaper," and the movie shows us the crosscurrents of radio DJ commentary, with some folks siding with Paul while other folks express fear about a man taking the law into his own hands, inspiring copycats and fueling the cycle of violence.

By now, you can see where the plot is going. You already know the answer to the question of whether Paul will manage to track down the people who tore his family apart, and you probably already know the answer to the question of whether Paul will dispense an ugly form of justice (he does: not every criminal dies by gun; one gets a memorably gravity-assisted death). Given that this remake of "Death Wish" follows the beats of the 1974 film, you doubtless have a pretty good idea of this movie's tone and trajectory.

"Death Wish" got pounded by critics, and I'm pretty sure it's for many of the same reasons that critics hated the 70s-era film: glorification of violence, vengeance, and vigilantism, for one thing; allowing the pro-gun side to have an actual voice in a Hollywood movie, for another. The movie specifically includes a line long promoted by the NRA and by NRA sympathizers: "When seconds count, the police are minutes away."

The movie isn't one for subtlety. Along with the preachy radio commentary, which lays out the pro and con expositorily, there's a scene right after Lucy's funeral in which Lucy's father, shooting at some poachers on his land, tells Paul that the crux of the issue is that, sometimes, you can't rely on the police for help. You have to solve some problems yourself.

Willis's performance in this film is stony and stoic. This dampens the energy of the story and keeps things on a quiet, slow-burn level. There was a chance for the movie to turn Paul Kersey into a figure of hate, consumed by his quest for revenge, but in the end, the 2018 film went for something close to the 1974 ending: the police are perfectly aware that Kersey is the Grim Reaper, but they choose to do nothing about it. The movie even ends on the finger-gun gesture made by Charles Bronson in the original.

One area where I thought the film showed at least a little sophistication was in its discussion of racial politics. One black DJ, skeptical of the Reaper, asks the public whether it should condone the actions of a white guy murdering all these black guys (Kersey actually kills people of several different races, including white). A black panelist sitting with the DJ counters that "these were drug dealers," so the Reaper is performing a public service by cleaning up the streets. There was a distinct The Dark Knight Returns feel about all this media meta-commentary; Frank Miller's 1980s-era graphic novel also used the media as a framing device and a through-line throughout the graphic novel.

The biggest implausibility, though, is that not a single cell-phone holder is ever able to get a clear shot of Paul's face. Paul wears a hoodie during his nights out, but a hoodie isn't a monk's cowl—one's face is clearly visible unless one pulls the hood closed with drawstrings. On the other hand, the movie does a decent job of showing well-intended cops competently working a case: Detectives Raines and Jackson are good at what they do, but they're hampered by the system, which doesn't keep them from sussing out both the criminals who attacked the Kerseys and Paul Kersey himself.

I don't think "Death Wish" deserved the outpouring of critical hate it received.* I generally liked the film despite its predictable plot and some jerky-dry acting by Bruce Willis. If the movie had another major problem, it's that a remake of a seminal film isn't going to have much impact, given how so many Bronson-inspired films have arrived on the scene since 1974, including modern revenge-action dramas like "Taken," et al. "Death Wish" suffers the curse of being yet another unasked-for remake. That said, it's not a bad one.

*There was a significant "enthusiasm gap," as the critics were at a 17% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but the audience-approval score was 78%.

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