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Movie Review: Death Wish

A man fights back in Death Wish. Image used from nerdist.com

For over forty years, the Death Wish series has been a popular one. The original is remembered as a classic and the sequels always do well when aired on TV. For the past decade a remake has been trying to get off the ground with numerous actors and directors coming and going. The remake has finally been released but at the worst possible time with mass shootings and gun violence being a daily occurrence, the talks on gun control going nowhere and terrorist groups like  the NRA making sure nothing changes. I’ve seen many people worry that this film is an Alt Right, pro NRA propaganda film and few others thinking it could bring up the subject of gun control. So is Death Wish either of these things? Let’s find out.

 

To talk about the story of Death Wish first we have to look at the production history. Over two years ago writer and initial director Joe Carnahan left the project after the studio cast Bruce Willis wanting a well known action star in the role. Shortly after directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado were brought on however the duo left when the studio refused to let them rewrite the film as they wanted to make it more of a drama akin to the original but by now it was clear the studio didn’t want the original but rather a film similar to the more popular sequels. Thus horror director Eli Roth was brought aboard, for some reason, and it is clear major rewrites were made to Carnahan’s script since what follows feels like something he would not have made. I can assure you all that this film isn’t the Alt Right, NRA fantasy many were hoping it would be… technically. But it also doesn’t bring up the subject of gun control either, in fact the story doesn’t offer anything. The story follows Paul Kersey a surgeon who, after his wife is murdered and his daughter is put into a coma, goes on a vigilante killing spree going after random criminals and taking out the ones who attacked his family one by one. One of the problems with the story is that the pacing is too fast. The attack on Kersey’s family is fast, his wife’s funeral is fast, his mourning is fast. The film is doing everything in it’s power to get to the vigilante part of the story as quickly as possible and because of this the story lacks any kind of emotional weight. I found that I didn’t care about Kersey’s plight, I didn’t care that his wife was dead, I didn’t care his daughter was in a coma I just didn’t care. Even the vigilante aspect wasn’t interesting because the film didn’t want to do anything with it. Even in the original series that glorified violence Kersey was at least punished a little for his actions. There are absolutely zero consequences for Kersey’s actions and because of that this film loses any kind of tension it could have had. Then there’s the subjects of vigilantism and gun control. This film barely touches on either subject, opting instead to cut away to radio show hosts briefly giving their opinions on what Kersey is doing. These don’t lead to anything, they don’t start a conversation they briefly pop up and the film decides that’s all it has to do when it comes to gun control, which is very little. It’s ironic considering that Brian Garfield’s novel is anti-gun and anti-violence. That’s what infuriates me the most about this, Death Wish could have been different, it could have been a smart film, it could have been filled to the brim with great social and political commentary but it doesn’t. The only part of the story that really stood out to me was the gun shop where Kersey got his weapons. To me this setting was chilling, the store clerk was a happy, excited young woman who cheerfully sold weapons of war and even tells Kersey how disgustingly easy it is to buy tools of mass murder. It reminded me of a movie from a decade ago called Death Sentence, another film based on a Garfield book and the film Death Wish should have aspired to be. In the third act the main character Nick Hume was purchasing guns illegally from the villain’s own father. The father spoke of each weapon with sadistic delight about how one could maim, mutilate and murder a person with them. The gun store clerk is far more chilling as she takes great glee in the prospect of a new customer and sees herself as an honest worker and law abiding citizen. Had the film the brain cells to do it it would have delved deeper into this aspect but it simply doesn’t.

 

The Characters for Death Wish aren’t particularly interesting

 

Paul Kersey is not an interesting character, not in the slightest. The lack of emotional weight makes his mission uninteresting and he has no real character development throughout the film. Paul doesn’t struggle with his actions nor does he feel remorse for what he does. Heck in the original Kersey had a huge meltdown because he smacked a criminal in the face with a sock full of quarters. There is no such moment like that in this movie in fact after his first kill Kersey sleeps like a baby. There’s actually a very unsettling aspect to his character as one of his first actions after his kills initially is to find his crime on the news and after each kill watches the reports with a twisted kind of excitement. There’s also the fact that he doesn’t have any kind of repercussions for his actions. In Garfield’s books the main idea is that vigilantism is stupid and vengeance only makes things worse, but here Kersey is constantly rewarded. he gets off scott free and never learns any kind of lesson. At one point Kersey sees a report that a father of three tried to copycat his actions but was immediately killed. Does this cause Kersey to pause? Does he reflect on his actions and how his vigilantism is only causing more problems? Nope. He sees it on the news, is completely unmoved and it’s never brought up again. The only interesting thing about his character is in one scene he uses his surgical prowess to torture information out of a villain before he kills him. Normally I despise torture in films as it’s uncomfortable and ghastly but I was fine with it here only because something different was happening. That should have been this film’s angle, Kersey using his surgical skills to dispatch his enemies rather then guns, make him something of a heroic slasher character. But this isn’t a creative film, this is Death Wish where the status quo is king.

 

Frank, Paul’s brother, is an interesting character. he serves as both the voice of outcry and reason and actually has a lot of really good moments with Paul. It’s like Paul’s surgical skills it’s something new, something different, something interesting that makes Frank such a good character and he helps break the monotony of the story up whenever he’s around.

 

The remaining characters aren’t that interesting. Lucy and Jordan Kersey aren’t around much to leave any kind of impact, Detectives Raines and Jackson who serve as a sort of obstacle for Kersey could have been good characters but alas do hardly anything and the villains are pointless. One of the most interesting things about the original film is that there was no main villain and Kersey never got the men who attacked his family. Here the film decided it needed a main villain in the form of Knox but he’s introduced so late and is so painfully underwritten that the film would have been better had he not been in it.

 

Acting for Death Wish is decent

 

I really like Bruce Willis, he’s been one of my favorites for years and it’s great to see him lead a theatrical movie again. However, it can’t be denied that he’s an immensely arrogant, greedy and lazy man who from his own admission stated that he hates action movie but only does them because they make him the most money. He’s always been a great, versatile actor but he cares only for the biggest, easiest pay check and that shows in this film. Willis is clearly just phoning it in, not caring what kind of performance he gives. Even in the most emotional scenes when he breaks down and cries all I could see was insincere, crocodile tears. Had he put any kind of effort this could have been a great performance but instead it seems like he’s asleep half the time.

 

Vincent D’Onofrio does very well as Frank. Unlike Willis he actually does put effort into his performance and as such manages to come off as entertaining and memorable. He does have good confrontations with Willis and has some pretty good chemistry with the other actors. It’s just nice to see somebody caring about how his performance is instead of wanting a paycheck.

 

Camila Marrone does a decent job as Jordan. She isn’t half bad and in what little she does is pretty memorable, quite impressive for someone who hasn’t done a big film before.

 

Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise do well as the forgettable Raines and Jackson. Norris was quite delightful giving a more comedic performance and Jackson worked very well with him.

 

Beau Knapp is ok as the one dimensional Knox. He actually does have a decent presence in the film though I’ve seen him do significantly better with much smaller roles.

 

The action for Death Wish is one of the film’s biggest follies

 

You’d think sacrificing a good story, emotional weight, social and political commentary and tension in favor of action would at least make for some great and entertaining action scenes right? Unfortunately no. The action in Death Wish does not happen often and when it does happen it is very, very brief and incredibly bland and uninspired. The gun fights are short and simple and even the finale which should have been action packed is a letdown as Kersey dispatches his enemies quickly and easily. It’s clear they wanted a Death Wish sequel and when I think of those films I think of the huge battle in Death Wish when Kersey takes out a bunch of bad guys with a giant machine gun or Death Wish 4 where Kersey was something of a secret agent or Death Wish 5 when Kersey literally used an exploding soccer ball to take out a villain. If the film was getting rid of everything else so it could have action then it should have been crazy, it should have been bonkers, it should have thrown caution to the wind and amde the most memorable, entertaining action scene it could have. But it couldn’t even commit to that. The director and the studio sacrificed what could have been a great movie and couldn’t even follow through with it wanted.

 

Final Thoughts: I really wanted to like this movie. I really did. Heck, for the past two days I’ve been thinking about how I could bend over backwards to see this film as pretty good. But the more I thought of it the more the flaws stood out. The story is weak, the main character isn’t good, the lead doesn’t care and the action is poorly made. This movie doesn’t offer anything, nothing at all and as such it is completely disposable. If this somehow gets a sequel I hope everyone learns from their actions, but a great film was in reach and they threw it away in favor of the lowest common denominator so I doubt they will.

 

Verdict: 1.5/5

About the Author

Good day to you, my name is Jonathan Gonzalez. For years I've loved movies and have been reviewing them for years, ever since I first saw Roger Ebert on Ebert and Roeper during my freshman year of high school for the first time. I am a graduate of Mercy College with a Bachelor's in Journalism and I have Asperger's Syndrome, something I am truly proud of.

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