Death Wish

Bruce Willis in Death Wish. (Empire Entertainment)
Bruce Willis in Death Wish. (Empire Entertainment)


What it's about:

A loose remake of the 1974 film of the same name; Dr. Paul Kersey is a successful surgeon with an apparently perfect family but when his wife and daughter are brutally attacked in a house robbery gone bad and the police are unable to help, he takes justice into his own hands and starts a one-man war on crime in the violent streets of Chicago.

What we thought:

It's impossible to look at Death Wish without addressing the wider context into which it has been released – particularly in the United States of America. After a seemingly unending string of mass shootings in America, the recent school shooting in Florida that left 17 students and teachers dead has spurred a major movement, led by the country's youth, against America's infatuation with guns, with the National Rifle Association, with the politicians who are owned by the NRA and even against the Second Amendment itself. The people have spoken and the NRA's stranglehold on the country finally seems to be slipping as calls for far less idiotic gun control measures to be put in place and for deadly assault rifles to once again be purely the purview of the US military, may not be falling on deaf ears. 

This is the climate in the USA into which Death Wish has inserted itself and it could hardly be less welcome. The original Death Wish, aside for being a frankly quite terrible film, was a highly morally and politically problematic proposition even in the early '70s as its call for vigilante justice and glorification of gun-violence left a bad taste in the mouths of even the most faintly liberal audience member. It's interesting, incidentally, that in the same year that Death Wish was released, Marvel Comics debuted the Punisher as a villain in an issue of the Amazing Spider-man; a character who would in time acquire more and more layers as he became, at his best, a symbol for examining the effects of the very kind of vigilante justice espoused by Death Wish.

There is absolutely none of that complexity in what we might as well call Die Hard With a Death Wish – even with the film constantly features talking heads on various media platforms debating the merits or lack thereof of Kersey's actions. In fact, though those talking heads, as well as a tone deaf sequence in a gun shop, are clearly there to tackle the gun-control issue that has been, if not raging, then at least bubbling under the surface of US civilisation for years now, they are placed in a movie that clearly fetishises guns and loves the idea of turning the modern USA into the Wild West. 

Had those sequences not been included and had the film just been yet another stupid b-movie about an action hero getting revenge on those who did him wrong, it would simply be a case of bad timing, but the very fact that it looks like the film is actually trying to say something – something that only the biggest gun nuts want to hear – makes it far more problematic.         

All this said, though, should you be able to put aside the film's politics, it's not bad as far as stupid b-movies go. Eli Roth, the b-movie maven probably still best known for his awful Hostel movies, gives the film a certain amount of zip and Bruce Willis at least seems to be putting some effort into the film after sleepwalking through his last, what, eighty-five terrible movie appearances. It's slick, it's gory and it's not entirely humourless – all of which puts in the plus column for this sort of movie. 

It is, however, also much too long, horribly derivative (the 1974 original is only the first of its obvious influences), mean-spirited, repetitive and stupid – and not in a good way. It also manages the quite impressive feat of getting largely terrible performances from even its best actors – up to and including Elizabeth Shue, who is astonishingly bad here. Again, none of these are necessarily fatal flaws for this kind of movie but somewhere between it being just a bit too starry and professional to qualify as a true b-picture and my having had more than my fill of this sort of brain-dead revenge flick back when I was a teenager going through the oeuvres of Jean Claude Van Damme and, heaven help me, Steven Seagal, it was never anywhere near fun enough for me to excuse just how little I wanted to be watching this movie.

And, really, that's kind of the crux of the matter: who actually wanted this Death Wish remake? Certainly, the political climate makes it even less welcome, but what is the draw of this film? Does anyone still care about the increasingly awful career of the once-great Bruce Willis? Has anyone been clamouring for an unfaithful remake of a film whose reputation has already been destroyed by time and a string of reviled sequels? Is Eli Roth still a thing? Does anyone who is not sick and tired of revenge movies really want to spend their – or their parents' – hard-earned cash to see this at the cinema? 

Well, if its (a)pathetic $13m opening weekend in the US is anything to go by, the answer to all those question is a pretty resounding “no!” - or, perhaps more precisely, “meh.”