As subtle as an NRA recruitment video, and about as emotional, Eli Roth’s “Death Wish” is that horror filmmaker’s remake of a ’70s vigilante film that nobody was asking for.
Bruce Willis, looking decrepit and acting like he gave his last damn a dozen years ago, stars in what plays like an old man’s movie for angry, emasculated and frightened old men.
And Roth? The “Hostel” director turned horror impresario underscores the cold hard truth that as a director, he makes a helluva producer. Whatever he knew about creating tension and suspense he forgot in his zeal to show sucking neck wounds, brain splatter and the other effects of bullets tearing into his flesh. The movie has no pulse.
Changing the vigilante from Charles Bronson as a man we never for a second believe is an architect to Willis, whom we never believe for half a second is a surgeon, is the most twisted thing about this remake. Roth uses split screens and montages to show Dr. Paul Kersey locking and loading, intercut with images of him dealing with the bodily injuries caused by gunshot wounds in a Chicago hospital.
There’s a conflict a real director could have chewed on.
The set-up is the same, a man who feels helpless when his home is invaded, his wife and daughter (Elisabeth Shue, Camilla Morrone) attacked, a man who feels he has “failed at the most important thing a man does,” protecting his family.
He needs…a gun.
Because when you can’t make us feel a thing in delivering “Look what those animals did to my baby,” standing over his comatose college-bound daughter’s hospital bed, getting revenge with firearms is the only option.
Roth lets the picture dawdle as the Joe Carnahan script parrots a tirade of Fox News “Chicago– City of Death” talking points, an aural assault of talk radio hosts decrying their city’s GUN violence problem (Never mentioning the GUN part, or where the guns come from — lax-gun-law Mike Penceland). He lets Kersey work his way up from random street thugs to the actual perpetrators of the home invasion, guys he more or less stumbles across.
Roth puts all the movie’s creativity into finding ways to do in the bad guys. Not that there’s much to that, either. No, not every hoodlum is black or brown. That’s progress.
Willis, as Kersey, dons assorted hoodies, practices with a stolen gun and injects himself into the city’s “crime wave,” becoming the viral phenomenon the locals label “The Grim Reaper.” He smirks when he sees cell phone video of his first kills.
The cops (Dean Norris, Kimberley Elise) of course sympathize, as they joke about “animals killing animals” on the streets, and Roth picks the oddest places to give them close-ups — throwing up after biting into an “organic” energy bar.
Willis can’t muster up the heat to make us feel the fix-his-bloody-wounds from combat (“Surgeon, surger thyself?”) or get the sense of Kersey’s personal journey, from impotent, helpless victim to man with guns. Shue might convince us it’s a happy marriage, Willis cannot be bothered to summon up the warmth of faked attraction.
Vincent D’Onofrio scores points as the doc’s more streetwise brother, a flawed man whom D’Onofrio gives humanity in every scene.
I’d compliment Len Cariou (“Blue Bloods”), who has a lovely moment as an elderly father burying his daughter, Paul’s wife. But Roth and Carnahan (“The A-Team,” “Smokin; Aces”) follow that with a moment so jarring and silly — grandpa pickin’ up his shootin’ iron — that you forget how real the guy seemed just seconds before.
Roth, who hasn’t directed that much for a guy with his grossly inflated (horror) reputation, can’t get out of his own way here. And any thoughts of this reviving a career Willis seems to have lost interest in bleed out long before the closing credits.
MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, and language throughout
Cast: Bruce Willis, Elisabeth Shue, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Norris, Camilla Morrone
Credits:Directed by Eli Roth, script by Joe Carnahan, based on the 1974 movie. An MGM Paramount release.
Running time: 1:47