Sometimes the pairing of a writer and director is a mistake because their approaches differ so radically that their collaboration results in a discordant mess. The problem with this remake of Michael Winner’s controversial 1974 film is that if anything writer Joe Carnahan and director Eli Roth share a point of view—one involving comical, over-the-top violence—that magnifies the worst instincts of each rather than toning them down. He result is a film that panders to the audience’s fears and fantasies as much as the first movie did, but does so with a cynical grin on its face.
The original “Death Wish,” of course, fed into the zeitgeist of its time, a period of socio-economic upheaval in which urban crime spiked and people were afraid to set foot on New York’s streets, believing that muggers and killers lay in wait around every corner. But it played not only to their paranoia, but to the notion that by arming themselves they could cleanse the city of the criminals the police were incapable of controlling or eliminating. When architect Paul Kersey, played by Charles Bronson, took up a gun and brought vigilante justice to the scum who had destroyed his family, viewers cheered him on, dreaming that they themselves could do the same.
There’s fearfulness abroad in the country again today—witness the explosion of applications for gun permits, and concern over terrorist attacks and mass shootings, let alone gang activity and ordinary crime—and Carnahan and Roth do try to plug into current circumstances by situating the action in Chicago, which has become the poster city for murders going off the charts. But that’s all just window dressing for what turns out to be a simple-minded tale of a guy (Bruce Willis) who goes after a bunch of home-invasion thugs who, during a robbery, killed his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) and put his lovely soccer-playing, college-bound daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) into a coma.
This time around, Kersey is a principled, law-abiding doctor at a hospital on Chicago’s well-heeled north side. A visit to a restaurant where a valet parker takes down his family’s address leads to the break-in the following night, in which Lucy is killed and Jordan incapacitated. When sympathetic cops Rains (Dean Norris) and Jackson (Kimberly Elise) get nowhere fast, the distraught physician, taking a cue from his father-in-law (Len Cariou), who aims potshots at poachers on his Texas ranch, decides to take matters into his own hands. He purloins a gun that falls from the waistband of an ER patient and begins practicing. Then he goes off and deals with a couple of carjackers he happens upon, earning the social media moniker of “The Grim Reaper” in the process. Next he peremptorily disposes of a drug-pusher who had threatened a young ER patient.
Paul’s real target, however, is the house-breaking gang, and here all that Carnahan can contrive is a farfetched coincidence. That crooked valet arrives at the ER not only wearing the watch he stole from Paul’s house that awful night, but carrying a phone with all his gang’s contact numbers on it! Without anyone noticing, the doctor makes off with those too, and uses them to track down, and deal with, two of the other robbers—Fish (Jack Kesy) and Joe (Ronnie Gene Blevins), the former in a protracted gunfight that also involves their fence (Ian Matthews), and the latter in a gruesome torture scene—before taking on the operation’s sleazy kingpin Knox (Beau Knapp) not once but twice, the second time definitively.
By this time the societal backdrop—mostly involving silly excerpts of folks debating the Reaper’s actions on a Sirius talk show—has been pretty much jettisoned, and the movie has devolved into a standard-issue revenge flick that simply celebrates vigilante violence in comic-book fashion. There are no consequences to what Kersey does, except for the corpses that he piles up; after all, his victims deserved to die, and even the cops are ready to let the deaths slide after the good doctor promises that his nighttime escapades are over. The novel by Brian Garfield on which both the 1974 film and this one are based is a more subtle work, showing how easily the proverbial good guy with a gun can become a bad guy with a gun, but Carnahan and Roth are even less interested in addressing that dark theme than a film like “Kick-Ass” was.
In any event, the picture is definitely let down by Willis, who gives a flat, lackluster performance, phoning in a turn not unlike those he’s offered lately in a string of direct-to-video flicks (he’s quickly becoming the new Nicolas Cage in that regard). Norris and Vincent D’Onofrio insert some pizzazz into the proceedings as the lead detective and Paul’s rough-edged but concerned brother, respectively, and Knapp seems to be channeling Alan Arkin’s Harry Roat, Jr., as the slimy Knox, but Willis’ deadening effect—in more ways that one—cannot be so easily dissipated.
Technically “Death Wish” is adequate, though it’s apparent that despite some exterior shots much of it was filmed elsewhere than in Chicago (Canada, presumably); Rogier Stoffers’ cinematography is actually pretty good. But the combination of nastiness and snarky humor in this “Death Wish” reveals it as a picture made by yahoos for a like-minded audience, an ugly action movie with no moral center whatever.