“I’m sorry for your loss,” mumbles Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis), disingenuously, to the devastated partner of a now-dead police officer.
“Now you’re going to go save the animal that shot him, huh?” The officer barks back.
“If I can.” Paul Kersey is a surgeon. He saves people. And when he can’t, he’s sorry for their loss. But this is Death Wish, which means it won’t be long before someone else is sorry for his loss.
Of course, you can be as sorry as you want for someone’s loss but you can’t unwreck them. “Police only arrive after the fact,” his father-in-law whispers. “If a man wants to protect what’s his, he has to do it himself.”
If all of this sounds rather paint-by-numbers, it’s because it is. In at least one way, Death Wish is an achievement for Eli Roth: it’s his first forgettable movie.
Which isn’t to say that it’s bad; We open on a frenetic aerial shot as a police car speeds toward the hospital. There is an officer in the passenger seat, canvassed in gunshot wounds. His partner screams at him to stay awake. We transition to a dizzying Steadicam through the hallways of the ICU. Paul Kersey does his best to stitch him up. It’s not enough.
The next day, he has an altercation with a volatile Suburban dad at his daughter’s soccer game. The man grows dangerously unhinged, and Kersey shrinks back in an effort to deescalate the situation. There’s violence beneath the shoddily painted surface of the midwestern man – or something.
Kersey’s wife, Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) is killed, his daughter (Camila Morrone) in a coma. There are no serious leads. In Chicago, the open cases are so voluminous it’s unlikely much will come of any of them. On the phone with Detective Rains (Dean Norris, playing Dean Norris), who is assigned to his wife’s murder, he is interrupted by a vagrant on the street.
“Run him over,” the Detective quips, “it doesn’t count as a crime.” In cities like Chicago, crime and poverty are scarcely distinguished from each other, we are told. We should be more suspicious of “the system” – or something.
“I wish I could say everything reminds me of Lucy,” Paul whispers, “but everything reminds me of the men who took her from me.”
The local Baptist Church is having a “Turn In A Gun” event, and we see posters for the event throughout the film. Kersey does the opposite, somehow getting his hands on a litany of assault-style firearms within a day or two in the city with the strictest gun laws in the country.
“Last week a guy shoots up a party,” Detective Rains laments. “14 dead bodies.” You can feel Roth’s elbow in your side as he belabors the (somehow, still rather vague) point – it’s way too easy to get your hands on a firearm, or something.
“When Lucy’s mother was sick, she said ‘We simply have to trust God’s plan’,” Kersey’s father-in-law delivers the eulogy. “I don’t see any ‘plan’ in this.”
If all of this seems a little on-the-nose, it’s because it is. The film will draw vague and reactionary criticism on “Film Twitter” and elsewhere – that it’s “fascist,” and so on. But in point-of-fact, it seems to have your Uncle Gary – who watches InfoWars and collects semi-automatics – in its crosshairs (pun retroactively intended).
In the rightly-maligned Charles Bronson Death Wish quintilogy(!), Paul Kersey becomes increasingly “COOL,” graduating from “revenge,” to “folk heroism,” to The Wrath Of God, Personified. In Eli Roth’s remake, his penchant for butchery grows, but we’re only half-told how to feel about it. As a video in which he guns down some carjackers becomes viral, we see the euphoria that blossoms on his face. The drive toward vigilantism is inherently perverse, or something.
Which is, perhaps, Death Wish’s fatal-est flaw: It’s a whole lot of -or something, while somehow remaining too on-the-nose to be taken seriously. It’s nothing like Michael Winner’s masturbatory celebration of vigilanto-fascism, but it’s not quite I Saw The Devil, either.
There’s an interesting-if-muddled subtext about how guns become a “placeholder God,” by which we chisel out our own “divine wills,” and never to good results. There’s a humorous-if-muddled jab at “gun-fetish” culture. There’s a relevant-if-undeveloped through-line about the violence that underlies the mundane. In the end, though, it’s simply less than the sum of its parts.