There is sooooo much to say about Eli Roth’s Death Wish, and honestly, it’s ridiculous to think that much needs to be said about it at all. At its absolute deepest, this update of the 1974 Charles Bronson flick is exactly that. Eli Roth, love him or hate him, is a schlock fanboy of the highest order, and he stumbled into the opportunity to try his hand at remaking a classic film from the era that most inspires his work. And that’s what he did. And that is all that he did.
So pardon me when I say that the passionate negative reaction to just the trailer of this film feels a bit ridiculous to me now that I’ve seen the movie. Yes, it’s plain to see why someone could watch the trailer and think that perhaps now is not the best time for a movie that applauds vigilantism. It certainly seems gross to have a rich white guy dishing out his version of justice against people of color. And if you really think about it, the hoodie is a bad choice. It plainly invokes upsetting imagery from contemporary headlines. And to have Chicago as the setting is a tone deaf idea given the Windy City’s present crime rate. So yes, before I drop the hammer here, please be assured that I get it. I get why everything about Death Wish looks like a bad idea. But here’s the thing. It’s just not that movie. It can be if you really want it to be, but it’s not that movie. Save your energy for something more important. It’s just not that deep.
So no, it’s not tasteless. It may not be to your taste, but it’s not tasteless. The word I’d use isn’t ‘tasteless.’ The word I would use is ‘pointless.’ Short of coming down a teensy bit harder on vigilantism than the original film, nothing new is being brought to the table here thematically. This is just Eli Roth gleefully remaking a movie that he loves. That alone is worth the ticket price, granted you’re a fan of the guy. For reasons I don’t fully understand, Roth has become a bit of a punching bag in the name of some type of virtue. I believe it’s because he used the term ‘SJW’ to describe the characters in his cannibal horror throwback The Green Inferno. And since we progressives really don’t like to be criticized even in passing, he is now an alt-right bro, who creates fascist propaganda. Yes, that’s a real accusation:
Twitter: “Death Wish” is fascist propaganda.
Me: C’mon, it can’t be that bad.
Yeah, that’s fascist propaganda.
— Charlotte Clymer🏳️🌈 (@cmclymer) August 3, 2017
Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake is so nakedly fascist that alt-righters will have an erection before the trailer ends https://t.co/sDY5fQXR9W
— Alan Zilberman (@alanzilberman) August 3, 2017
Me? I’m a fan of his work. I share his love for genre cinema, and can see his passion for it through his films, whether I fully enjoy the final product or not. As such, I was pretty excited for Death Wish. And if I’m being fully honest, it has provided an immature sort of schadenfreude to watch film twitter collectively lose its shit over, of all things, a Death Wish remake.
The original film was the first of five movies. After Michael Winner’s brooding take on the novel of the same name was a success, Cannon Films, the company behind such prestigious classics as Bloodsport and Delta Force 2, obtained the rights and put an aging Charles Bronson at the center of a pretty bonkers action franchise. Roth’s take on the material* is a healthy mix of the darkness of the original and the more grindhousey nature of the sequels. Folks expecting one or the other will likely be put off by this mixing of tones, but this is very much on-brand with Roth’s idiosyncratic style.
In this new version, it’s Bruce Willis who plays Dr. Paul Kersey. In an occupational update, this new Paul is a successful trauma surgeon. Every day he treats victims of violent crime, so much so that he’s become a bit desensitized to it. It’s just a job that he does, and when he’s done he goes home to his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue), and his daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone). One night their plans to celebrate Paul’s birthday are derailed when he is called into work. While he’s away, a trio of masked intruders break into his home and assault the two Kersey women, leaving one dead and the other in a coma. Unable to deal with the pressure, Paul descends on a misguided path of vengeance, not just against the men who hurt his family, but any who commit violent crimes. He soon grows into a cult figure known as “The Grim Reaper.” Citizens argue over whether or not his brand of vigilante justice is a good thing, while the cops (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise, an adorable duo) do their best to figure out who this hooded killer really is.
Vincent D’Onofrio is also in it as Paul’s hapless but well meaning brother because of course he is. He’s the best.
The biggest compliment I can offer this movie is that Bruce Willis shows the hell up. No love lost to the man, but lately he’s had a tendency to let it show when he’s just collecting a paycheck, and it’s always a shame. Willis exudes star power when he wants to, so to see him sleep his way through anything is just the worst. His age is really starting to show, and Death Wish is a great way for him to bridge the gap between the action pictures he can no longer helm (just let McClane alone, he’s too old) and the more contemplative stuff he will likely transition to in old age. The chemistry between him and his family works very well (kudos to Shue and Morrone, who do some difficult work with class), and his descent into desperate violence is believable in a way that allows the film to revel in its cathartic vengeance without fully advocating it. I’m impressed in the natural ways that the script gets us there. While there are a few contrivances as well, I think there’s room for some critical leeway in the department of stupidity. It’s Death Wish.
Despite being Roth’s first foray outside of horror, he still puts a genre stamp on it in a few choice moments of cleverly staged violence. A few kills are gruesome in a Hostel sort of way, while others are more in the realm of Cabin Fever. None are outright goofy — the violence has weight, for sure — but all are in the name of fun. And that’s the appeal. Death Wish is a lot of fun if that’s the sort of thing you are into. If you are not into it, that is okay too, but there is a huge different between “I’m not into this sort of thing” and “this movie is dangerous to society.” Seriously, we need to get a handle on how we feel about whether or not what is depicted in media affects human behavior, because where I’m standing I can see no consistency. Our opinions on it change at the drop of a hat depending on which adjacent narrative we’re pursuing. It’s well meaning, and a sign of humanity’s inclination to do the right thing, but it’s functionally worthless without consistency.
For my money, it’s not an either/or situation — media undoubtedly affects behavior — but my faith in humanity’s natural inclination to do the right thing is strong enough to give me confidence that those who would see Death Wish and decide that vigilantism is the way to go, or that violence is the answer to class struggles, were already headed down that path anyway. The movie has nothing to do with it. And really, what is our culture’s current taste for socially blacklisting folks we disagree with — trying to get them fired from their jobs, even — than a non-violent form of vigilante justice anyway? None of us can presume to act like we’re above the very human inclination toward revenge, but the adults amongst us are pretty good at controlling our behaviors nonetheless. We’re also adept at knowing the difference between real life and a movie. Please share in my faith that this notion is true for the majority of us. Kids are different, of course, but this movie is rated R, so they shouldn’t be there anyway.
There probably is a better movie that takes this concept and turns it into something meaningful. There’s definitely a worse movie that takes this concept and handles it all wrong. But neither of those movies would really be Death Wish. I think Roth understands that, and I think he accomplishes his intended goal.
You don’t have to like Death Wish. I certainly wasn’t blown away by it, but it really is a lot of fun. I just ask that if you’re going to hate it for being a racist piece of fascist propaganda, maybe you should dig deeper than a single trailer before giving yourself a heart attack. It was certainly within reason to be wary of this concept, especially given the current climate, but I assure you, it’s really not that deep. It’s also optional.
*Roth and Dean Georgaris (and a handful of others) pretty much re-wrote the original script by Joe Carnahan, who still received sole writing credit for the film. His letter to the producers after leaving the production when they forced Bruce Willis upon him is a now legendary piece of Hollywood badassery.
Death Wish opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.