In “Death Wish,” Eli Roth’s blunt-witted, pop-reactionary, crudely watchable and reprehensible remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson thriller, Bruce Willis, as a Chicago surgeon-turned-vigilante, walks up to a drug dealer who he’s learned was guilty of wounding and terrorizing a young boy. The dealer, known as the Ice Cream Man, is slumped in his chair, surrounded by thug bodyguards. He barely has enough time to take out his gun and say who the f— are you before Willis announces, “I’m your last customer,” and pumps half a dozen bullets into him. No muss, no fuss.
The scene, by all rights, ought to be a nasty bit of business: a middle-aged white avenger in a hoodie, popping out of nowhere to blow a black drug dealer away. But that “last customer” line plays like an old Schwarzenegger kiss-off, and the lawless killing is followed by equal-time commentary from black and white talk-radio hosts — the film’s explicit attempt to defuse any racist overtones.
More than that, the reality of a glib execution like this one is that audiences have been consuming overripe revenge thrillers for 45 years now, and they no longer take them all that seriously. Blowing someone away with unsmiling moral cool is now an act of violent comedy. (That’s certainly how the multi-racial audience reacted at the preview showing of “Death Wish” I attended; they hooted and hollered with glee.)
“Death Wish,” make no mistake, is a movie that has its heart in the wrong place. It’s an advertisement for gun fetishism, for taking the law into your own hands, for homicide as justice, for thinking of assault weapons as the world’s coolest toys. Given that the eternal debate about gun control has now been heightened, post-Parkland massacre, to a new state of urgency, the film, depending on your point of view, is either horribly timed or spectacularly well-timed. An N.R.A. cultist might see the new “Death Wish” and think, “Hollywood finally made one for our side.”
Except that in the ’70s, revenge thrillers — “Death Wish,” “Walking Tall,” “Billy Jack” — had a gritty resonance that helped sway the body politic. Even when they were scurrilous and badly made (which was more or less always), they spoke to the pendulum swings of a nation that had absorbed the counterculture but had yet to shake off the disgruntled passions of the silent majority.
In today’s America, where revenge in pop culture has become the air we breathe, it’s doubtful that the new “Death Wish,” even if it’s a modest hit, will be remembered or talked about in a few weeks. It’s preaching to the choir — but more than that, it’s a strictly-for-kicks “ideological” thriller, with the structure of a slasher film. Each time Willis dispenses another victim-who-deserves-what’s-coming-to-him, the mayhem gets kicked up another bloody, brutal notch. “Death Wish” is designed to ring right-wing alarm bells, but mostly it’s designed to inspire nihilist chuckles at seeing bad-guy scum get killed real good. The truth is that a movie like this one doesn’t matter anymore (the way the Charles Bronson “Death Wish,” though scuzzy and rather listless pulp, did), because even its rabble-rousing feels market-tested. There’s plenty of blood up on screen, but not much fever to the bloodlust.
The original “Death Wish” was Hollywood’s attempt to cash in on what had started, with “Billy Jack” and “Walking Tall,” as an outlaw indie-film explosion: violent, low-budget demigod action pulp made outside the industry, with that very fact seen as a measure of its conviction. (Tom Laughlin was Billy Jack.) But “Death Wish,” more than those other movies, foreshadowed the moment we’re in now, since it was so much about the mythological trashing of the rule of law.
Paul Kersey, the mild-mannered New York architect played by Bronson, responds to the brutal murder of his wife — and the rape of his daughter — by realizing that he can’t get justice through the system; he has to do it himself. Compared to the action heroes that followed, from Sly and Arnold to Matt Damon in the “Bourne” films, Bronson, in “Death Wish,” now seems weirdly sedentary — he faces off against muggers and fires his pistol like a man playing video games. Even when he’s on the streets, he seems like an armchair vigilante. But you hear an echo of what he represents each time a politician pushes a stand-your-ground law, or President Trump trashes the justice system, or a member of the N.R.A faithful declares that guns are what you need to protect yourself from the government. They’re saying: Let’s do it like Bronson did.
Bronson, of course, had his disaffected strong-man mystique (being almost entirely inexpressive was part of it), but Bruce Willis is a far superior actor. He plays Kersey as a velvet-voiced upper-middle-class daddy-saint, a tender and affectionate man who relishes his life of plenty but will cancel a birthday dinner to go to the hospital emergency room, where he presides over seemingly endless shifts of inner-city trauma. Kersey’s wife, Lucy (Elisabeth Shue), and daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone), who has just gotten into a college out east, adore him and the life he’s made for them in their perfect Lake Shore home. But as soon as Kersey warns a parent at a soccer match to tone down the swearing, Bruce the bruiser pops through.
The night of the birthday dinner, a crew of masked burglars sneaks into the house, and the violence that follows is staged in a way that’s viciously effective but rather generic, like something out of a “Purge” sequel. The most disturbing moment in the original “Death Wish” was the hideous sexual violence committed against Bronson’s daughter, but Roth has dropped all that. In this case, there are two gunshots: Lucy is killed, and Jordan left in a coma.
Reeling from the tragedy, it doesn’t take long for Willis’s Kersey to go from being a civilized healer to an anonymous street killer; offing random criminals is his therapy. The movie tries for a few scenes of psychological transformation (as when Kersey watches his raging father-in-law go after poachers with a shotgun), but they’re ham-handed, and the whole trick of the movie is that Willis doesn’t shake off his easygoing charm once he becomes a vigilante. If anything, it just makes him a happier camper. He’s doing it, you see, as an act of compassion — he kills so hard because he loves so much. He’s the righteous homicidal wingnut who cares.
Roth, working from a bare-bones script by Joe Carnahan, doesn’t stage any of this with a great deal of personality. There’s one execution that provides a dollop of Rothian gore (a car on a garage jack comes smashing down, leaving…bloody insides), and a split-screen montage of Kersey in his two identities — doctor and vigilante — is accompanied by AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” which feels, in context, like a cheeky dash of horror ‘tude.
Mostly, though, Roth puts his stamp on “Death Wish” by updating the evolution of Kersey’s mission into a social-media-fueled news event. A video of his first confrontation with a crook gets posted on YouTube (it’s hard to know what’s more jaw-dropping: the fact that the person he kills is a mere carjacker — the idea, I guess, is that all tattooed criminals are Evil, and therefore deserving of death — or the contrived way it’s caught on camera by a woman peering out her window). From that moment, Kersey is known as the Grim Reaper. He becomes the hottest news story in Chicago, though only in the movies does the crusade of an urban vigilante ever appear to be anything more elevated than a mission of hate.
Did Eli Roth sign on to make “Death Wish” because he believes in its ideas? He’s still working to rebrand himself as something beyond a torture-porn auteur, and he may have convinced himself that this movie, with its talk-radio debates, wants you to “make up your own mind” about its hero’s odyssey. But, of course, that’s not how it plays; the film endorses vigilante justice with every thrust of Willis’ back-in-black swagger. Yet if you told me that Eli Roth was in favor of liberal gun-control laws (even though his film plays like an N.R.A. recruitment video), I’d believe you. Because all the new “Death Wish” is truly committed to is getting a rise out of the audience. It’s a first-person-shooter fantasy. The film’s only real view of justice is that it’s a blast.