You’ll hear a great deal in the coming week about a particularly awkward scene in Eli Roth’s tone-deaf and dumb as hell adaptation of Brian Garfield’s Death Wish and remake of the Charles Bronson-starring film, and with good reason: It’s a one-minute crystallization of what exactly is wrong with this stupid movie.
It’s a training montage, where we’re meant to see Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) go from neophyte (stolen) gun owner to stone-cold badass (demonstrated by how accurately he can shoot at a stop sign) over the course of a few weeks after a group of robbers murder his wife and gravely injure his daughter, right before he goes out and starts up a campaign of righteous vigilante justice that sees him killing drug dealers in broad daylight and becoming an internet meme. You can see how this scene would have read well on the page in writer Joe Carnahan’s screenplay, and Roth makes the slightest push towards the thematic point of the scene — that Kersey’s applying his surgical precision to a new craft with a different set of tools and to opposite ends, taking lives at night while saving them during the day — in a single shot.
Yet the director hired Willis to play his lead, and he can’t be bothered to give a shit, so Roth buries this pivotal moment under the anthem preferred by NRA members when the time comes for them to take their Viagra: AC/DC’s “Black in Black.” It’s the same kind of horseshit you-can-do-it-too fantasy that Hollywood has been peddling to those dissatisfied with the Justice System and who think that they can do it better, but it also just happens to be coming out this week, perhaps the worst of all possible weeks.
I’ve never read Garfield’s novel, and I saw the original film years ago on AMC (outside of Goldblum, it went in one ear and out the other), but from what I know about the author and how much he hated the fact that his story was transformed into a Bronson vehicle, he probably isn’t too happy with the final product on display here. A standard revenge movie plot has been grafted on top of his story — in both the novel and original film Kersey never actually encounters the criminals who attacked his family (instead, he just begins shooting random muggers in parks and on Subway trains), and in here, they’re duty-bound to give the audience the dopamine-releasing high of watching Bad Men Get Murdered — and Willis, even less lucid here than Bronson was in the sequels when he was slowly succumbing to the early onset of Alzheimer’s, isn’t interested in portraying Kersey’s struggles as anything more than just what a man has to do when his family has been threatened. Even if that means cutting open a dude’s leg open and pouring fucking brake fluid on his Sciatic nerve. He’s just having a great time with all of this, making what should be a fucking horror movie about a good man’s fall from grace and his embrace of his inner psychopath into a generic action star vehicle.
The occasional satirical moment — an advertisement for a Grand Theft Auto style gun shop owned by a spunky millennial woman, a gag about cops and donuts — is fumbled in Roth’s butterfingers, probably because he doesn’t want anything compromising his audience’s ability to enjoy the gory action scenes he’s crafted. They’re fine enough, I guess, and they’ll titillate you a bit if you like semi-decent gore effects and dudes getting their heads crushed, but the movie surrounding those moments is so hideously racist (outside of a dead cop and Dean Norris’s partner, the only people of color in this movie are usually trying to rape and rob women on the street, even if ultimately our gang of robbers is all-white so we can luxuriate in their deaths without having to feel icky), thick-headed and inert that they don’t really make that much of an impact.
Even worse, Roth squanders the few people who show up for work here, like Paul’s ne’er-do-well brother, played by the great Vincent D’Onofrio, by putting them next to Willis, who makes an Easter Island statue look exaggeratedly expressive. He has a moment in which he tries to connect over basketball with a young patient, a gunshot victim, in which it seems like he’s a space alien learning our language while trying to string together complete sentences about Michael Jordan. Anyways, Elisabeth Shue shows up as Kersey’s wife, who mainly exists to give him a watch and get killed, and Norris might be the worst movie cop that I’ve ever seen in a mainstream film. Boy, this is just awful on all sides.
Anyways, Death Wish is bad filmmaking, worse exploitation, and an even worse advertisement for the benefits that vigilante gun violence can have on your life. It’s practical propaganda for the NRA’s acolytes and, even worse, fuel for the fire for those who suggest that we should send the National Guard into the streets of Chicago to crush gun violence with an iron fist.
It’s the worst average-guy-gets-revenge thriller that I think I’ve ever seen, just in its sheer laziness on all sides, a consequence-free parade of the pleasures of indiscriminate killing. Nobody really expected this to be any good, especially given that Eli Roth was behind the camera (imagine if he’d been able to make his Massachusetts-set animated sitcom all of those years ago, and we could have avoided him being labeled a “master of horror”), but it didn’t have to be so flat and boring, and it most definitely never had to star a washed-up-yet-still-popular-I-guess actor like Willis. Hell, even the tools for satire are right there even in Roth’s take on this premise: Does a rich white guy who gets all of his news from flattering radio hosts and the evening news and uses that information as validation for his careless and cruel actions sound familiar to you?
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Image via MGM.