Eli Roth’s Death Wish is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name. The original starred Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, a Manhattan-based architect who becomes a vigilante following the murder of his wife and assault of his daughter. Changing things up, Roth’s remake stars Bruce Willis as Paul Kersey, a Chicago-based surgeon who becomes a vigilante following the murder of his wife and assault of his daughter.
Roth’s Death Wish never really had a shot at critical acceptance, given its “good guy with a gun” stance and perceived murky racial politics. And while it’s unquestionably a better film than its unavoidable rotten status will lead you to believe, it has certainly arrived at an especially inopportune time.
Death Wish opens with Kersey operating on a wounded criminal, a cop-shooter. Soon, we’re being introduced to his home life: he has a loving wife (Elisabeth Shue), a perfect daughter (Camila Morrone) and a working-class brother (Vincent D’Onofrio). Roth devotes an inordinate amount of screentime to the Kersey’s idyllic family structure, establishing Paul’s loving relationships with his wife and daughter, before finally allowing everything to come crashing down.
One night, while Paul is at the hospital, three burglars hit his house while his wife and daughter are home. Roth stages a tense home invasion sequence, which culminates in Paul’s wife being murdered and his daughter deep in a coma.
Paul attends his wife’s funeral somewhere in Middle America. He’s inspired by the sight of his father-in-law taking potshots at a few illegal poachers (“People rely on the police to keep them safe. That’s the problem… If a man really wants to protect what’s his, he has to do it for himself.”), and acquires a handgun as soon as he gets back home to Chicago. He teaches himself how to use the gun via several thorough YouTube tutorials, then roams around Chicago shooting criminals point-blank, in the name of cleaning up the city and avenging his family’s tragedy.
On its own merit, Death Wish is an entertaining, if subpar adventure flick with severe narrative, logical and tonal flaws. One moment we’re in a fun gun-training montage, the next we’re dealing with Paul’s daughter going into cardiac arrest (or something). Kersey’s singular moment of attempted rationalization involves him delivering idiotic, on the nose lines such as “I did everything I’m supposed to do. I worked hard. I obeyed the law.” An extended critique of background check laws contradicts itself in a thousand unnecessary ways. And at least one of the weapons purchased legally in the film is straight-up illegal in Illinois.
Death Wish’s primary inadequacy comes from Willis’s performance: his Kersey barely expresses any emotion after his family tragedy, making his subsequent evolution to vigilante all the more unbelievable. He’s not nearly broken-up or angry enough for any of his actions to make sense. In fact, the film wouldn’t work at all if not for Willis’s built-in movie-star charisma, as well as a very solid supporting cast including D’Onofrio, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise, and Kirby Bliss Blanton.
But perhaps the weirdest thing about Death Wish is how there’s no tension in it at all, excluding perhaps the home invasion sequence (which, by the by, concludes in oddly tension-free fashion). Kersey is never really in danger of being caught, nor is he really in danger of particularly harsh punishment if he is caught. He always has the upper hand, and any serious injuries he incurs disappear in under two scenes. The final shoot-out has Kersey one step ahead of the criminals at every moment, a totally bizarre choice on Roth’s part. It’s just not really how movies work. A film protagonist is generally put in some danger which he eventually maneuvers his way out of; Roth’s protagonist simply… has a gun and shoots the bad guys.
All that said, there’s a level of cognitive dissonance between the above critical analysis of Death Wish and the actual experience of watching the film. There’s no question about its cinematic quality: it’s philosophically confused, atonal, poorly acted, and illogical. However, it’s also surprisingly accessible, feels much shorter than it actually is, and isn’t actively maddening. It isn’t jaw-droppingly stupid, nor is it deathly boring. It even has a modicum of self-awareness—it’s not impossible that Roth is aware of his film’s various flaws, and, in the service of making a dumb genre flick, simply doesn’t care about any of them. If you take the film at face value and in good faith, you’re more likely to have a good time at the theater than a bad one. There exists a spectrum of bad movie; Death Wish is distinctly of the “you might have fun with it” variety, rather than the “stay far away.”
Death Wish isn’t the film that it could be—this is a seriously missed opportunity on Roth’s part—but it’s also going to be an unexpected crowdpleaser and potential cult favorite. The audience that I saw it with loved it, cheering every time Bruce Willis murdered some criminal in cold blood. Death Wish is weightless enough to be intermittently fun, and fun, no matter how mittent, is an underrated cinematic quality.