DEATH WISH (2018): Can You Really Reboot Revenge?

The revenge movie is one of the most reliable celluloid archetypes ever so it was just a matter of time before a Hollywood in the throes of remake-mania would get around to remaking Death Wish.  This is a rare example where a remake could have done something fresh and interesting with a familiar property: the original Death Wish film was a very loose adaptation of the Brian Garfield source novel so a new film faithful to the book could have been quite interesting.

Unfortunately, that’s not what we got. Another aspect of current Hollywood is that it is at a peak of risk aversion the powers-that-be played it as safe as possible.  The long-in-development script is credited to Joe Carnahan but apparently was rewritten by other writers, Eli Roth was drafted in from the horror world to direct and Bruce Willis took a break from his omnipresence in direct-to-Redbox fare to pick up a major studio paycheck as the lead.  Fans of the series cried “Heresy!” to all these choices but it made it to the multiplexes nonetheless.

Intriguingly, the results are neither success nor disaster. Instead, they transformed one of the most controversial hits of all time into another piece of studio product.

In this version of Death Wish, Paul Kersey (Willis) is a trauma surgeon preparing to send his daughter (Camila Morrone) off to college. His orderly life is disrupted when a group of robbers raid his home while the daughter and his wife (Elizabeth Shue) are there. The wife is murdered and the daughter ends up in a coma. Kersey decides to buy a gun and hit the streets for revenge, becomes a hero to the people, a villain to the media, etc. Any revenge movie fan knows the drill.

The resulting film has all the earmarks of a production that was driven by a committee rather than by filmmakers, consistently playing the dark material safe and trying to have it both ways. Kersey is allowed to revel in bloodlust – this time, he actually gets the guys who brutalized his family – but there’s also a satirical scene in a gun shop that pokes fun at how easy it is for him to get armed.  The bloodshed is R-rated, particularly a scene in a garage that seems to channel Hostel for five minutes, but there’s nothing as disturbing or confrontational as the violent tableaux of the original film. It even offsets the darkness of the film’s themes with a weird version of a happy ending.

The film also settles for briefly touching on complex issues rather than exploring them in any meaningful or dramatically challenging way. Topics like how race or class conflict intersect with Kersey’s vigilantism are given lip service via a Greek chorus of radio D.J.’s commenting on the action but none of it goes anywhere.  A scene at a high school soccer game raises the topic of aggression amongst Average Joes but the idea dissipates as soon as it appears. There’s a potentially interesting subplot with Kersey having an ex-con brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) who figures out Kersey’s illegal activities before the cops do but, again, nothing interesting or challenging is done with it.

Essentially, what remains is a revenge-by-numbers action flick with setpieces that get sillier but no less amusing as the film goes along.  On this level, Death Wish is fitfully entertaining.  With the exception of the ill-conceived Hostel-in-the-garage scene, Roth handles the action pretty well and gets solid work from the cast. Willis is neither lazy nor particularly inspired, just solid enough to carry the film. D’Onofrio and Shue do good work, as does Dean Norris as a cop, in propping up sketchily-drawn characters.

Fans of the Bronson Death Wish decried this one from the beginning and are right on some key levels. However, the worst crime that the 2018 Death Wish commits is that it is utterly disposable and forgettable. It’ll never haunt anyone the way the first film did. That might make it a more saleable piece of work from an executive standpoint but who wants a Death Wish film that can’t punch any societal hot buttons?

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