Eli Roth’s Death Wish isn’t a bad movie as far as super-violent exploitation flicks go. But it is a deeply problematic one. And that problem boils down to this: It’s the absolute wrong movie at the absolute wrong time. With our country currently reeling from the latest in what seems like an endless cycle of sickening school shootings, there couldn’t be a worse moment for a film that not only fetishizes gun violence, but also seems to get off on it. I’m sure there must have been long hand-wringing debates about whether to shelve the film for a couple of months and let the still-fresh wounds heal. At least I hope so. But whatever the case, the louder and more irresponsible voices in the room seem to have won out.
Even if you’re too young to have seen the original 1974 Death Wish and its seemingly infinite sequels starring Charles Bronson as a gruff, shoot-first-ask-questions-later vigilante, chances are you at least know about them. They were notorious even for their time. Back then, Bronson resurrected his waning tough-guy career by playing a Manhattan architect who takes up arms after his wife is murdered and his daughter is sexually assaulted by thugs who the police are too busy and bothered to deal with. So in order to find some sense of justice, he goes on a ruthless bender of bloody payback. Those films weren’t what anyone would ever call subtle. But they did tap into a simmering rage and anxiety in the culture — especially the Wild West frontier of Ford-era New York City — that gave them a sort of gutter seismography. People were scared. The movies just expressed that fear writ large on the big screen. And Bronson’s vigilante hero was the mad-as-hell avenger who law-abiding citizens couldn’t allow themselves to be. The Death Wish films were bloody cartoons with an undercurrent of depraved, sicko wish-fulfillment. The good old days, these were not.
Now, 40-plus years after Bronson first picked up a pistol and started blasting, we have Bruce Willis playing a mild-mannered Chicago E.R. surgeon who can barely keep up with the constant flow of gunshot victims rushed into his O.R. every night. As written by Joe Carnahan (Narc), the new Death Wish’s image of Chicago is straight out of President Trump’s most fevered nightmares. It’s Murder City on the shores of Lake Michigan. Willis’ Dr. Paul Kersey may spend his shifts desperately pulling out slugs and glumly pronouncing the times of death of his patients, but he lives in the tony North Shore suburb of Evanston with his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and teenage daughter (Camila Morrone). He couldn’t be further removed from the horrors he sees at work every day — or so he thinks until death comes to his doorstep.
While at the hospital one night, three burglars with stockings over their faces break into his home and take his wife and daughter hostage. His wife is murdered, and his daughter is left in a coma. The detectives on the case (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) don’t have much luck finding the bad guys. So Paul, in his grief, puts on a hoodie, grabs a Glock, and ventures out into the mean streets looking for trouble. He doesn’t have to look far. When a young black woman is being assaulted by a bunch of goons, he steps in and starts shooting. Not only does he save the victim, he gets away with the killings. It’s all so easy — too easy. And he likes it — too much. Unable to sleep at night, he heads back into the streets, and his murders turn him into a citywide folk hero called “The Grim Reaper.”
Of course, we’ve all seen revenge fantasies like this played out in the pages and panels of comic books (hell, it’s the cornerstone of the whole Dark Knight mythos). But this is isn’t Gotham City in some DC universe. This is our world, these characters are presented as real people, and this setting is the United States of America right now. It would take a more artful filmmaker and skilled satirist than the film’s director, Eli Roth, to pull off a tightrope walk this tricky. Like Quentin Tarantino, Roth is an aficionado of ultraviolent grindhouse flicks. Also like Tarantino, he’s made a career (Cabin Fever, Hostel, The Green Inferno) out of recycling the cheap thrills of B-movies for a younger generation of moviegoers who weren’t alive to experience their sticky-floor taboos the first time around. Unlike Tarantino, however, Roth rarely has anything new to add to his retreads. He’s just serving up reheated leftovers, waiting to be admired for his exquisite bad taste. Yes, Roth is careful in his new Death Wish to sidestep certain racial and political third rails that the original not only stepped on, but gleefully danced on. So that’s something at least. But too often in his Death Wish, he wants to have his cake and eat it too. When Willis’ Paul feels the rush of cleaning and cocking his gun the first time in his cellar, Roth cranks up AC/DC’s “Back in Black” on the soundtrack. Not only is Paul turned on by being judge, jury, and executioner, so is Roth — and by extension, he hopes, so too is the audience.
I suppose if you were feeling charitable you could make the case that Roth is winking at the Pavlovian response the film’s violence creates. But he’s never displayed any real track record of being a satirist in the past. The thing is, despite (or perhaps because of) all of this, the film works. The audience I saw it with (in a Blue State, no less) cheered like crazy during the moments that might have otherwise given them pause. And Willis, to his credit, turns in a pretty decent performance in what amounts to a Purge movie minus the irony. I suspect that Roth accomplished exactly what he set out to do with Death Wish. But the marketing of the film is another matter entirely. It has an unmistakable stink of rah-rah Make America Great Again-ness to it. It’s patriotic red meat thrown to the NRA crowd. I know some of you will say, “Relax, it’s just a movie.” Fair enough. But movies don’t exist in a vacuum. And Death Wish, as undeniably effective as it is on a primal gut level, should have probably stayed where it belonged. In the past. C