Kyle J. Steenblik

Death Wish is Well Made but Too Problematic [Review]

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Death Wish
Directed by Eli Roth
Written by Joe Carnahan
Based on Death Wish (1974 film) by Wendell Mayes, Death Wish (novel) by Brian Garfield
Starring: Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise
Production companies: Scott Free Productions, MGM Studios
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date March 2, 2018
Running time 107 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence, and language throughout

2 1/2 stars out of 5
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures presents director Eli Roth’s reimagining of the 1974 revenge thriller Death Wish. Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) is a surgeon who only sees the aftermath of his city’s violence when it is rushed into his ER – until his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and college-age daughter (Camila Morrone) are viciously attacked in their suburban home. With the police overloaded with crimes, Paul, burning for revenge, hunts his family’s assailants to deliver justice. As the anonymous slayings of criminals grabs the media’s attention, the city wonders if this deadly avenger is a guardian angel or a grim reaper. Fury and fate collide in the intense action thriller Death Wish.
Paul Kersey becomes a divided person: A man who saves lives, and a man who takes them; a husband and father trying to take care of his family, and a shadowy figure fighting crime; a surgeon extracting bullets from suspects’ bodies, and a man seeking justice whom the public calls “The Grim Reaper” that detectives are quickly closing in on.
Updated from the original novel by Brian Garfield, director Eli Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan’s (The Grey,Narc) Death Wish also stars Vincent D’Onofrio (The Magnificent Seven, TV’s Daredevil and Law & Order: Criminal Intent), Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas), Camila Morrone, Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) and Kimberly Elise (The Great Debaters). It’s a knife’s-edge portrayal that challenges our assumptions, and pushes our buttons. – Courtesy MGM

Death Wish is a late 70’s film that next to no one was asking to make a comeback as a modern remake.  While it was a popular film, and remains a cut classic now, I do not know anyone that would have thought it could work today.  In some ways I have to respect Eli Roth for making it work, even if the feel and tone of the film, and what could be some nefarious social commentary, are inappropriate and borderline irresponsible today.  I can honestly say objectively it is a quality film, very well made that kept the spirit of the original intact.  However, art and film cannot be divorced entirely from reality, they reflect each other, often in ways the artist did not intend.  Unfortunately, once a work is complete, it is then up to the audience to interpret the work.  Most often if the artist is an effective communicator the audience will understand and agree with the statements they were attempting to make.  In the case of Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake, I believe the audience will, in large, understand, how could they not, Roth is anything but subtle.  However, I suspect there will be some profound disagreements with what I perceived at the intended message.  To put it another way, objectively I understand, subjectively I vehemently disagree, but I will come back to that point in a moment.

In may respects this remake does what a modern remake should do, Roth took what did not work, and makes it work.  He took something dated, and gave it a fresh life, and took what was bad, and made it good.  It is an overall improvement on the original, without taking itself too seriously.  The villains were just over the top enough to be objectively evil, and our hero was an idealized everyman with justice on his side.  The action is engaging and fun to watch, the characters are only as deeply developed as they would be on the pages of a coloring book, letting the audience project themselves or others as needed.  The performances of Bruce Willis and Vincent D’Onofrio are convincing and fun to watch, and the direction of Eli Roth kept the plot moving at a very steady pace from McGuffin to deus ex machina with all the subtlety of a bowling ball.  For those reasons I enjoyed, and quite liked this film.

For these purely subjective reasons I felt repulsed and hated this film.  It began in this particular screening with a brief message from Eli Roth himself.  It was nothing big, but a welcome and thank you, but I have been around enough to know that if a screening begins with a director offering a preface to the film, things are not going to end well.  While his message was not much, his final comment about encouraging those that like the film to tell a friend, and those that do not like the film to “shut the fuck up” was too off-putting to let slide.  Yes, it may be a joke, and yes, I did also find it funny, but I felt the intent was less than good-natured.

The first less than subtle narrative stumbling blocks is the dog-whistle of changing the setting of the film from New York City to Chicago.  The film is also peppered with news report of gun violence and murders.  I do not recall hearing any other new snippets through the film, not even a random weather report.  Within the first 5 minutes the tone of the film was set, and the reality of the narrative was established.  The fantasy on display is the fallacy of the good-guy with a gun delivering justice that the only a bullet can deliver.  It is not the right time for this type of film, and I do not believe its time will ever come again.  On the positive side of that coin, this film does have the potential to generate real conversation, if the agenda presented is first rejected, and its merits or lack thereof are discussed.

Please also check out my Rants and Reels review on YouTube

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