'Death Wish' Review: Times Change, Revenge Stays the Same

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ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB) - The moment I saw a trailer drop for the “Death Wish” remake, my eyes were rolling before I even pushed play. Throw in the out of place AC/DC music and the directing credit of torture master Eli Roth, and I was completely disinterested in the film’s existence, even if I was desperate for Bruce Willis to make a return to the big screen (last lead role was “Red 2” from 2013). Two big things bugged me plot-wise. On one hand, I was baffled at yet another remake of a classic film that still works today. Secondly, there really isn’t anything impressive about the story of “Death Wish” in 2018. For 1974, the story of an everyday man having his family ripped away and resorting to fighting criminals with gun violence may have been game-changing. By now, that plot has been done time and time again and most of the time those films are just forgettable. Every once in a while you’ll get a “John Wick” to restore some life to the genre. The previews for this remake didn’t give me any high hopes for that. However, as someone who has seen all five of the original “Death Wish” films, I felt obligated to view it and hope that it would at least be serviceable. To my surprise, it was actually entertaining.

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“Death Wish” 2018 provides serviceable action entertainment and a decent return for Bruce Willis to the big screen with some competent drama and well-staged, schlocky violence, even if the film doesn’t really do anything to shake up its basic genre conventions and revenge clichés.

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The craft of the film is very straightforward. It follows the simple dealings of Dr. Paul Kersey, a surgeon who has his wife killed and his daughter put into a coma after they are attacked and robbed one night when he is at work. The family is given a brief setup of likability and the home invasion is effectively tense. It doesn’t reach the harsh effect of the original’s sequence, which I doubt they would get away with today as it included rape. The film then proceeds down the usual path of coping, having a violent revelation, and finally vigilantism. The story does just enough to keep you invested in the narrative and never bores. It even throws in some good comedy along the way to keep the film from being too depressing. It works, though there are some tonal issues present.

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Bruce Willis fills in for Charles Bronson this time around and finally gets to take on leading role in a theatrical picture since his career’s “death” back in 2013. While Bronson will always be the king of this role, Willis does a commendable job overall, especially in regards to being a vigilante. Bruce just has a coolness about him that makes handling the role of a tough, gritty hero easy. Throw in a couple of smirk and wink moments and the man has most of his performance down. Though there are issues I will confront later.

The rest of the cast does a competent job. The standout of the bunch would be Vincent D’Onofrio as the Kersey’s young brother. Nobody in the film pulls a performance of high praise, but nobody does a bad job either. Some actors, such as Dean Norris of “Breaking Bad” fame, just sort of fall into their usual typecast slots.

The film’s direction is well handled. Roth thankfully favored filming the picture cleanly without all the shaky cam nonsense that plagues the average action flick. Everything is strung together well with some nicely done scene transitions with good editing tricks. The general style of the film is very gritty and realistic looking. The iconic outfit of choice for Kersey this time around is a hoodie, sort of making him look like he is a part of the modern “Assassin’s Creed”....which could be cool come to think of it. I was worried this look would be laughable, but it actually works. It’s especially funny the way Kersey always manages to find a “fresh” hoodie by digging in hospital binds containing clothes from, ironically enough, previous victims of violence.

Chicago serves as an easy choice for modern setting considering the amount of gun violence that apparently really infects that city. The film updates well for times with the use of social media and radio talk shows serving as means of commentary towards the film’s argument: is it okay to take the law into your own hands...particularly by shooting criminals down in cold blood? The film pushes more towards the option of using any means necessary to protect yourself and those close to you. The film does throw in the occasional counter-argument to keep things from seeming too bias. Luckily, politics are kept to a minimum. It’s there, but it doesn’t distract from the overall plot.

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The main thing that slightly sets this remake above the average revenge flick is the action scenes. Well, mostly just the level of violence. This is very much an R-rated movie and the filmmakers clearly held no interest in holding back that fact. If you are super squeamish....perhaps pass on this one. This is directed by Eli Roth after all, the man known highly for his shock/gore horror films and he certainly brings that to the forefront. These gory moments are executed very well and provide the jolting effect they are going for. I for one will never trust a car jack again....ever. So, “Death Wish” currently fulfills the death wishes. Whether that is good or bad thing depends who you are. For, me it was plus. You be you movie. You be you.

Still, outside of the cool kills, there is nothing really special about this remake. While the plot is straightforward and easy to digest (gore aside), it offers no new twists or turns to formula. It does nothing wrong with the formula but doesn’t shake it up either. It doesn’t even rework the way the original film played out. In “Death Wish” 1974, Kersey never got the chance to actually find the gang that was responsible for the crimes against his family. He just goes after any criminal he happens to run into. That was a breath of fresh air against the norm where the anti-hero is expected to hunt down those directly responsible. The film starts off like it’s going down the original’s route, but pretty soon it does become that clichéd quest for those responsible.

Even though it was nice to see Bruce on the big screen again, his performance was not perfect. While he was good at being a tough guy or a happy guy that’s starting to enjoy taking out the trash, he was rather wooden in the more emotional moments, which is pretty crucial to the character and the overall story. For the first act, he just wasn’t giving the right reactions, as if he didn’t want to break emotionally too much and look “weak” on screen. This kind of brings down the effect of his family’s tragedy. The emotion he should be giving seems to be given completely to Vincent D’Onofrio. The best emotional reaction to the tragedy doesn’t come until later in the film when Kersey’s daughter learns of what happened. Bruce certainly gets better as the film goes on, but he was certainly bumpy.

There are also some odd tones to the film. On one hand, it is a gritty film about a nonviolent man forcing himself to be violent to achieve what he sees as justice. Then you will have scenes where he seems to enjoy his new “hobby”, even joking and smiling when keeping this secret from his therapist. Then there is the AC/DC music. I really hoped that was just a trailer thing, but apparently not. They really used that music and yes it is still out of place...and very, very clichéd. “Back in Black” hit its high with “Iron Man”. Please stop using it so much. At least, I remember that music though. The actual soundtrack literally escapes my mind.

“Death Wish” 2018 provides serviceable action entertainment. It delivers all it needs, does it well enough, and moves on. I do wish the film could have picked a tone: gritty or tongue in cheek. It mostly sticks to gritty, but the tongue hits the cheek every now in then. At times, the film is like a mix of the dark qualities of the first “Death Wish” with the one-liner dropping shlock of the sequels. This is a better film then 4 and 5 for sure. It’s not as good as 1 and 2. Whether it is better than 3 is up for debate. It’s technically better made, but anyone that has seen “Death Wish 3” can’t deny its entertainment value. Bruce does need to work on some emotional acting chops as well. Still, this remake is entertaining in its own right and provides enough commentary to be a little thoughtful, but not too overbearing.

I have chosen to avoid really talking about the film’s political debate in regards to guns. There is a lot of heat being thrown its way by critics for its time of release given the latest tragic gun violence in America. I’ll simply say that I can’t give the film negative points based on bad timing. The film had a release date and ZERO control of what a murderer in Florida decided to unfortunately do. I say just watch the film for the simple entertainment it is. I feel a lot of critics are choosing not to do that.

Recommended for an afternoon matinee.

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