Movie Review: ‘DEATH WISH’ is an unsettling NRA wish-fulfillment fantasy

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

DEATH WISH

Rated R, 107 minutes
Directed by: Eli Roth
Starring: Bruce WillisVincent D’OnofrioElisabeth Shue, Camila Morrone, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise

Of all the grungy, grimy movies on filmmaker Eli Roth’s resume that I will defend, I will go to my grave “stanning” KNOCK KNOCK. It was free pizza! I can not, and will not, be doing the same for Roth’s remake of the 1974 genre classic DEATH WISH. The original was very much a product of its time, so it’s no less than a head-scratcher why the schlockteur feels that now is the time for glorifying guns, violence and vigilantism. But here we are with a tone-deaf fetishizing of it. This is a wish-fulfillment fantasy the NRA will celebrate – and that’s what’s truly disturbing.

Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis, giving his most stone-faced, wooden performance to date) is used to seeing the effects of gun violence come across his path in the emergency room. He never expected it to show up on his front doorstep. And boy does it! His life’s joy is ripped away from him one night during a botched robbery that leaves his practically PhD-accredited wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) dead and his college-bound daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) in a coma (I know, I know, it’s serious). Frustrated at the lack of leads drawn up by Detectives Kevin Raines (Dean Norris) and Lenore Jackson (Kimberly Elise), Paul decides to take matters into his own hands, acquiring a gun and learning how to use it. He becomes a viral vigilante hero on the dangerous streets of Chicago in the process.

Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan’s modern incarnation of Brian Garfield’s novel and Wendell Mayes’ screenplay is lacking when it comes to the narrative. Time and time again, the film goes out of its way to fear-monger. It’s part and parcel of the source material’s DNA. Modernizing it makes it worse. The mentality is questionable. While an overwhelming portion of the female characters here are used as tools to aid the male arc, that’s endemic to the genre and also the least of this film’s troubling aspects. Same goes for the racial politics, which now in its refreshed form, you can almost hear conservatives’, “there were bad people on both sides” defense playing underneath composer Ludwig Göransson’s score.

Camila Morrone, Elisabeth Shue and Bruce Willis in DEATH WISH, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures film.

Did the filmmakers mean to make a film that embraces Trump’s America, or are they satirizing what that section wants to see? It’s very confusing what its motivations are. For a very brief portion, the filmmakers seem to be making the point that what Paul is doing is actually a poor response to a traumatic crisis. They show him making rookie mistakes like leaving an incriminating tag on his clothing, being a terrible shot, and getting severely injured. At one point, he gets in a pickle with a dead guy’s cell phone. However, in whiplash fashion, they veer from this judgmental high ground to nurse busted sentiments that what our hero is doing is perfectly fine. At my mixed-press screening, the audience’s bloodlust was particularly unnerving as they hooted and applauded Paul’s kills, stoked by the glamour shots of gore and blood splatters. One person chose to yell, “God Bless the NRA” and “Arm the teachers” during the end credits – and I’m in a blue state! This isn’t the type of entertainment the world should be buying into now, or ever.

The picture also suffers from pacing issues as Paul isn’t exactly on a spiraling, unrelenting quest. The split-screen montage of Paul lining up his scalpels and bullets with surgical precision hits the wrong notes as the audience gets the connection and the gleeful anticipation of violence behind it. This is the opening act to the bloodshed to come. His white-hot rage spurned by grief is taken out on drug-dealers and carjackers before one of the three robbers conveniently shows up dying on his emergency room table. So basically, Paul wouldn’t have done any better than the cops getting any leads in the case if this bad guy hadn’t fallen into his lap. This warm-up also acts as a conduit to subjecting us to three segments of talk radio personalities Sway and Mancow debating the ethics and morality of it all. One would’ve been enough. Plus, it gets pretty ludicrous in a few spots. In the second act, the most believable thing is the grieving widower’s messy mancave.

Though DEATH WISH serves to rip apart the illusion of safety, it’s rendered redundant in a world where no one feels safe anymore. We don’t want to be reminded of it – and we certainly don’t want to see a gratuitous ode to it either.

Grade: F

DEATH WISH opens on March 2.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.