When I walked into the theater for Eli Roth’s Death Wish (which is a remake of a 1974 ‘exploitation’ film of the same name) I expected to feel…something. Eli Roth is a horror film director with a storied history.
I was skeptical of this departure from his usual genre, but if nothing else, I expected Death Wish to be too much. Too offensive. Too visceral. Too…anything.
Instead, what I got was a fairly bland action flick, starring a rather bored-looking Bruce Willis, and featuring the kind of formulaic “Good Guy with a Gun” plot that one would expect in a direct-to-video film starring Steven Seagal.
The film revolves around Willis as Paul Kersey, a trauma surgeon working in the apparently war-torn city of Chicago. If this film’s portrayal is correct, then teams of people must have to walk the streets every morning cleaning up bodies. I don’t live there, but I have a distinct feeling that living in Chicago is not akin to living in The Purge.
Paul Kersey is well respected, and we are made to see him as an earnest saver of lives. Things change, however, when Paul’s wife and daughter (played briefly by Elisabeth Shue and Camila Morrone, respectively) are attacked during a botched break-in of their family home.
Paul’s wife is killed, and his daughter is left in a coma. And thus, probably the two best actors in this film disappear (with respect to Vincent D’Onofrio, this is not quite his best performance).
As Paul becomes increasingly filled with a need for vengeance, he begins to research guns and harbor thoughts of vigilante justice. In the end, he steals a Glock from a dying patient, ends his night-shift early, and kills two men who are attempting to steal a truck. He does all this while wearing a grey hoodie, leading to the local tabloids dubbing him “The Grim Reaper” (cue the chills and shudders).
The plot from here proceeds pretty much exactly how one would expect. One by one, Paul hunts down the men responsible for the death of his wife. He dispatches them with little difficulty, while the detectives on the case (played by Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise, who are the only two people who seem like they’re having any fun), draw ever nearer to him.
Eventually Paul’s brother, Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio, who probably should have played the lead but is instead playing a walking cartoon character), finds out about his heinous crimes, and…just…kind of goes along with it? Frank’s reaction sums up this film’s largest flaw: there are absolutely ZERO consequences or stakes for Paul.
Death Wish could have been a morality film. It could have portrayed the tragic story of a practitioner of medicine descending into a world of crime and murder. Eli Roth makes horror films, so one has to think that he has some understanding of the horrors of the human mind.
But, sadly, no.
Paul makes the transition from life-saver to brutal executioner with zero resistance. He never once seems to question his actions, never once stares at his own hands as a man’s blood drips from his fingertips, never looks at himself in the mirror and whispers “my God, what have I become…?”
Eli Roth seems all too eager to get all this mushy stuff out of the way and get on with the bloodletting. And that’s fine! If this had been a true modern exploitation film, in the vein of Robert Rodriguez’s GRINDHOUSE or Jason Eisner’s Hobo with a Shotgun, then I at least could have given it credit for that.
Instead the violence feels oddly gutless. It’s too clean. Too precise. Too…Hollywood. And the one “cringe-worthy” moment in the film, when Paul gleefully cuts open a perp’s leg as a form of torture, just feels out of character and sadistic, not boundary pushing and gutsy.
Death Wish tries to be a morality film. Death Wish tries to be an exploitation film.
Unfortunately, Death Wish is only shooting blanks.