At first blush, the 2018 remake of DEATH WISH at the hands of Eli Roth is pretty simplistic. The 1974 original, starring Charles Bronson, is iconic for all the right or wrong reasons as the ultimate vigilante movie. Roth’s take on the Michael Winner flick and Brian Garfield novel is not destined for iconic status by any stretch, but it has predictably generated considerable controversy.
The subject matter isn’t exactly the stuff of good timing. But in a gun-and-violence culture seldom a few days removed from another mass killing, is there ever a “good time” for movies like this?
Bruce Willis woozily inhabits Paul Kersey, a Chicago trauma surgeon who somehow keeps his eyes open long enough to do his job. One night, his restful ordinary life is ruptured by an act of violence. Frustrated by the foreseeable lack of police progress, Kersey carelessly becomes a vigilante and takes to the ferocious streets in search of some form of ultimate revenge.
It’s tempting to discard DEATH WISH as some sort of alt-right yarn, complete with the “good guy with a gun” chronicle vended by grim merchants of death. But is that really all there is to it? The first thing to note is that Roth’s picture does not provide explicit answers.
DEATH WISH sets the table by underlining social “rules” pertaining to masculinity. Willis’ character encounters a bully at a soccer game and has to back down, a sure loss of the sort of so-called Manhood™ marketed by the aforementioned death merchants. This opens a door to what’s to come.
Kersey lives in a world where silly online videos “train him” to use weapons, but things seldom go according to plan. When he first uses his gun against a criminal, it’s messy and Roth ably captures the chaos. The fallout is similarly unfocused. Public opinion is divided. People ask questions. Kersey’s far from a conquering, effective, sleek-suited hero. He’s a sluggish, dead-eyed shell.
As much as Kersey pursues his lockdown of vengeance, inexorable societal violence persists. A copycat dies trying to do what he does, leaving his children alone because he imagines the gun as a magic solution. Acquiring guns is hysterically informal to the point of pure satire. Most of Kersey’s “successes” amount to dumb luck, like a fortuitous bowling ball or a bad guy slipping in blood. The lead’s “best,” most in-control carnage takes place when he utilizes a scalpel, some brake fluid and a car jack.
DEATH WISH is pretty predictable fare for the most part, but its creeping darkness renders it more interesting than a terse surface reading suggests. Roth’s penchant for violence comes through in short-tempered doses and there’s no doubt that Willis’ part to play is that of a tepid lead. The more the details are considered, the more his lethargic portrayal seems by design.
Is the argument made for guns? Hardly more than it is in other actioners like the JOHN WICK franchise or any routine, undulating blockbuster. It’s hard to fathom DEATH WISH issuing an explicit message of that sort because it sends up so much of the “good guy with a gun” narrative and leaks its false folklore for what it is: a flaccid panacea to desperate, unthinking men with tragic lives.