Watching the Remake of “Death Wish” Starring Bruce Willis

Surprise! I’ve got a movie review and I wanted to write, so it’s your (un)lucky day if you happen to read this.

Recently I took the plunge and watched Eli Roth’s remake of Death Wish. For the record, I think the original is good-but-not-great. More than anything, it’s an interesting time capsule about a time when the United States was dealing with a very dark period and its cities seemed to be spiraling out of control. It’s very much an extension of that angst.

I’m aware it’s based on a book, which I’ve yet to read, but the film is much like  other 1970s New York tales; the city was portrayed as a morass of dread and occasional terror. For this reason, it becomes not a revenge fantasy but an exploration of a desperate attempt to reclaim power by a frightened population unsure of the way the world had changed.

When this remake came out, it was labeled as “racist” and “alt-right.” I don’t think that the charge has much merit unless you’re willing to stretch to get to that point. If you really want to see it that way, I can’t stop you. The story is just about an embittered man who handles grief and trauma in ways that aren’t healthy or positive for himself or society. Bruce Willis is just a star who fits into this sort of role if you come at it with a more “action mindset” than the material warrants, which Eli Roth definitely does.

To be honest, I’m more-than-half-expecting these sort of charges to be leveled against the forthcoming film, The Batman. We just can’t resist injecting sizzling hot takes into everything, for maximum attention and online laud, regardless if we’ve actually viewed the material at hand.

An additional hurdle is that the “world building” isn’t there to establish that this city and this time are so overwhelmingly bad, that someone would break down and go vigilante. This is a singular person working out a singular issue on an entire population.

As with so many of my reviews, the following review was originally logged on Letterboxd. Just as few people read me over there as they do here, but so long as I’ve got two channels I may as well use them. I’ve nested some minor differences in here, given this preamble, and cleaned up some thoughts because you deserve more when coming to kessel korner.

Bruce Willis Death Wish.
Also, the final shot of the movie is no longer clever.

My Review of the Death Wish 2018 Remake Starring Bruce Willis

During the first hour of the remake of Death Wish, I was actually impressed with the restraint that Eli Roth was showing (comparatively to his other works). There was some sense of the complex moral issues that the original film brushed up against.

And yet.

The use of “Back in Black” by AC/DC was a clear aural signal that Roth just couldn’t resist the urge to celebrate what was happening. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) ceases to be a tormented survivor and becomes an action hero. Bronson showed the restraint necessary to communicate the inner conflic in the original; here Willis is obviously given the direction to have fun.

As it progresses, Roth then eventually indulges his trademark taste for torture porn. I won’t go into spoiler level detail, but  it boils over in a scene where I stopped looking and listened for it to end. That’s not fun, and it’s not right that the hero takes pleasure in the action. That makes it a simple brutal fantasy and not a nuanced exploration of the nature of vigilantism.

There’s a token attempt to paper over these missteps near the end, but all it does is confuse the tone of the movie. The ending then turns into the most tidy action set piece I’ve seen in a while.

Vincent D’Onofrio is good as Paul’s brother Frank Kersey, and I really wish he’d been given much more time to help explore the more complex themes at play. It seemed like D’Onofrio wanted to drag the movie with him down an interesting emotional road but in the end, the freight train of gratuitous blood and guts had too much inertia for him to divert. His performance unintentionally reveals the shortcomings in Willis’, as well, and makes me wonder what the film could have been like if their roles were reversed.

Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise have good chemistry as the cops struggling to find leads. Like D’Onofrio, you wish they’d had more screen time. Camila Morrone is convincing as Kersey’s daughter, but she doesn’t have very much to do for the majority of the movie. As a side note, the treatment of the daughter’s trauma is actually better than in the original. At least they fixed that.

Rogier Stoffer’s photography is good, too. The film is very nicely composed and the use of color is very effective; the darker scenes are always visually clean.

At the end of it all, it’s just a very frustrating movie. It earns your trust in the first hour, only to squander it when Roth just can’t help his more vicious film-making tendencies.