Part peerless Horror City time capsule and part urban-paranoia Op-Ed, the original 1974 Death Wish dropped its pacifist everyguy into Middle America's nightmare version of rotten-Big-Apple New York – muggers, rapists and minorities, oh my! – then asked audiences: What would you do if your loved ones were attacked by modern-day savages? The answer: Be a man, pick up a gun and become the apex predator of the concrete jungle. To say that its frontier-justice ideology was reactionary would be putting it mildly; the movie did everything but grab viewers by the lapels. slap their faces and call them pussies for not packing pistols and spitting lead on subway rides. Watch it now, and you laugh at the campier aspects, cringe at the outright racism and sit slack-jawed as a Southern yokel/NRA avatar circa '74 talks about how the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Plus ça change ...
But it helps to remember that this Nixon-era law-and-order wet dream also became a huge blockbuster hit, sparked a lot of point/counterpoint conversation about vigilantism, gave Charles Bronson's career a shot in the arm and kicked off a revenge-fantasy franchise that went well into the Nineties. (By 1994's Death Wish V: The Face of Death, the antihero had graduated from shooting hippie freaks to punks, mobsters and drug cartels. Why yes, a rocket launcher is used to blow a guy up!) And given how Trump resurrected that same "law and order" rhetoric to scare voters and play to his base's baser instincts, you can see why an opportunist might want to remake it now, right?
So instead of Bronson's upper-west-side architect, we now get Bruce Willis's Paul Kersey, a successful Chicago surgeon. (All the better to make just the right painful incisions on bad guys and pour caustic agents on to the exposed nerve endings ... but we're getting ahead of ourselves.) Instead of Kersey's daughter (Camila Morrone) being raped by nihilistic home invaders, she's merely pawed by a sleazeball thief during a robbery gone bad; his wife (Elisabeth Shue), however, is still murdered. Instead of a Herbie Hancock score, we get a gun-training montage set to AC/DC's Back in Black, because Shoot to Thrill would have been too obvious. And instead of newspaper headlines about this "Grim Reaper" avenger who goes around cleaning up the streets, we get memes and viral videos. Otherwise, the song remains the same. Guy gets pushed too far. People think he's a fascist or a folk hero. Blood gets spilled.
No one's expecting a pop referendum on Our Fucked-Up Nation circa 2018 from Eli Roth – no one needs a state of the nation from the guy who made Hostel: Part II. But it doesn't seem like it's that much to ask for a decent modern B-movie to be made out of Joe Carnahan's script, and even that seems beyond the filmmaker's grasp. Roth applies a blunt-force-trauma style to everything; it's like he directed this movie while still in character as Inglourious Basterds' "Bear Jew." Which makes sense, given that all he really cares about here is the chance to stage some, like, bitchin' kills! Ask him to have some sort of ideology about the world outside of the theater, and he comes up blank or brutish. Give him a chance to crush a bad guy's head under a car, and you can feel the glee emanating off the screen. He's not remaking Death Wish. He's making what he thinks a person in 1974, sitting in a Forty-Deuce grindhouse theater, would have seen in their mind while watching it, with some added Caro syrup for good measure. It's not immoral, just amateurish and amoral.
The one light at the end of this long, slogged-through tunnel is, surprisingly, Willis. It's easy to forget that, amidst an ever-growing IMDb page of action fllms whose names you do not recognize and the occasional well-placed cameo, that this man is a genuine movie star. As in, the kind of star who can fill a big screen with charm, charisma and the sense of watching someone crack, a quality that feels increasingly rare these days. Subtlety may not be a necessity in a film called Death Wish, but there are a half dozen moments where he throws a glance or makes a gesture that feels genuine, all the more noticeable in a movie that feels listless between shoot-outs. It's a thrill to see Willis engaged like he is here, and even his version of the original's final finger-gun shot feels like an old-school moment. Bronson would be proud of Bruce's tough-guy-with-a-heart. As for everything else about this failed exploitation flick, you wish his vintage Kersey would return from the grave and just blow it all away.