If there’s one old film franchise that seems completely impossible to foist onto audiences in 2018, it’s ‘Death Wish’. We’re in the height of the #MeToo movement and in the midst of another massive gun control debate in the wake of yet another senseless school shooting. Perhaps it’s not the time for a tale about a father whose family is raped and murdered grabbing a gun and killing random criminals in the name of vigilante justice.
What’s that? MGM remade ‘Death Wish’?! The struggling studio that never releases anything anymore? That doesn’t seem right. Wait, it stars Bruce Willis and is directed by Eli Roth?! That’s insane. That shouldn’t exist. Who could possibly want to see that? Well, me, if I’m being honest to my fictional conversation partner. I love a fun mess of movie.
For lucky few of you blissfully unaware of the ‘Death Wish’ franchise, it was vigilante revenge series starring an increasingly disinterested Charles Bronson and directed by Britain’s sleaziest hack, Michael Winner. In the first movie, Bronson played an architect so upset by the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter that he developed seemingly superhuman thug-killing and one-liner-spouting abilities. Over the course of a five-film franchise, what started as a somewhat morally complicated exploration of vigilante justice transformed into one of the most comically over-the-top celebrations of violence in the action genre. All the movies were pretty awful, but by the time Cannon Films got involved with the sequels, the series reached a special level of almost slapstick insanity and moral irresponsibility (peaking with the rocket launcher climax, accidental hilarity of ‘Death Wish III’). Now the franchise is mostly remembered as an embarrassing mistake and relic of a sleazier time in the action genre. It has few fans beyond those who view the movies as camp objects.
Thankfully, it appears as though the camp humor and questionable morality are what drew director Eli Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan (writer/director of ‘The Grey’ and ‘The A-Team’) to the project. At its best, ‘Death Wish 2.0’ plays as a campy and even satirical trip through the ‘Death Wish’ motions, at least attempting to reach the irreverently nasty tone that Paul Verhoeven imposed on ‘RoboCop’ so long ago. The plot remains roughly the same. The only real difference aside from technological upgrades is that the Bruce Willis edition of Paul Kersey is a surgeon, so that he can get particularly vicious with the generic baddies when he finally takes the law into his own hands. There’s also a Greek chorus of radio personalities who openly discuss the moral, ethical, and political implications of a ‘Death Wish’-style vigilante marching the streets issuing machine gun justice. The movie wants to serve up dated gun nut fantasies and explore the clear problems and contradictions of those fantasies (all set to the soothing sounds of AC/DC). It almost succeeds too. Almost.
The gore and violence are (aside from the crime that pushes our “hero” over the edge) fairly slapstick and silly, designed to provoke laughter. It’s a knowing twist on the giggly response the old ‘Death Wish’ movies get these days. The ways in which Kersey learns how to become a vigilante warrior are parodies of U.S. gun culture and paranoid YouTube survivalist “how to” videos. His friends push him into vigilantism by questioning in his masculinity in 4-Chan approved ways. His slapstick murders executed with a perverse justice are one-liner delivery systems for an action movie icon who has specialized in heroic Hollywood killings and zingers for decades. Roth’s always been a fairly sly filmmaker who takes trash from the past and adds a lightly satirical bent to the old offensive B-movies he cherishes in semi-ironic terms. This is a ‘Death Wish’ that you’re supposed to laugh at, and it’s pretty clear that’s the case from the cartoonish cinematic style down to winking dialogue.
Of course, whether or not a tale of tortured vigilante justice should be presented with even mild levels of irony is a fair question. Ironic or not, the movie is in extraordinarily bad taste. This is still a Right Wing gun nut fantasy writ large. The story is set in a fictional version of Chicago where the police can’t be bothered to solve crimes against the white middle class, so a walking shaved head with a dad bod and a strip mall handgun is the only guy who can set things right. That’s a pretty damn problematic selling point for entertainment these days. While Roth executes much of it with a wink, the movie still has disturbingly tone deaf sequences all over the place, especially the overall arc of a middle age white guy marching into a crime-ridden Chicago, murdering black people, and getting the cops to turn a blind eye. That’s not heroic or funny. It’s a discomfortingly casual reminder of endless modern tragedies.
Beyond the questionable politics, humor, and “heroism,” the flick is also flawed on a variety of superficial levels. It looks distractingly cheap at times (and gorgeously stylish at other times, to be fair). Pacing can be a problem. Characterization is barely paper-thin. Actors are wasted. Bruce Willis alternates from being in on the gag to looking like a confused old man who can’t quite understand how his career got to this point. Granted, this is a ‘Death Wish’ movie, so a lazy Bruce Willis cycling through his three stock facial expressions still provides audiences with two more facial expressions than Charles Bronson ever brought to the role. However, it’s still far from his best work. Willis should be settling into an aging action icon portion of his career that did so many previous actors of his ilk well, such as Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, etc. Thus far, he seems confused and embarrassed to be in this place in life. It’s about time he got over it and had some fun again.
The ‘Death Wish’ remake is a mess. Big surprise, huh? Well, kinda. For every scene in which the movie casually aligns with dated toxic fantasies and ignorant politics, there’s another scene that proves the filmmakers are at least aware of what they’re doing and satirizing old tropes for savvy audiences while serving up the same gross clichés for old ones. It doesn’t quite hang together, but the fact that there are even any self-aware or pointedly critical moments in a ‘Death Wish’ movie at all is a minor miracle.
Look, any film titled ‘Death Wish’ is already tainted before it begins. All the problems here are to be expected. The fact that this thing isn’t a total reprehensible bore automatically makes the remake one of the best (if not the best) ‘Death Wish’ movies ever made. That’s really the best thing anyone could hope for from this project. On the other hand, it’s unlikely that most people will notice or even care. After all, calling a movie “the best of the Death Wish series” is kind of like being dubbed the best at shitting in your community. It’s always nice to become the best at something, but that’s not always an honor. Sometimes it’s a just big stinky mess that’s worth admiring before flushing the toilet.