It’s difficult to think of a film more out of step with the current culture than Eli Roth’s remake of Michael Winner’s 1974 action thriller Death Wish. At a time when Americans are constantly bombarded with reports of unpunished police brutality, the film suggests that the true problem with justice in our country is that law enforcement isn’t violent enough. Opening with an audio collage of 911 calls and news reports about Chicago’s spike in violence, Death Wish lays out an oversimplified snapshot of urban decay as a foundation for the brutality unleashed by one man after inner-city violence spills over into an affluent suburb. It’s there that burglars break into the home of surgeon Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis), killing his wife, Lucy (Elisabeth Shue), and leaving their teenage daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone), in a coma.
Frustrated by the slow police investigation into the crime that turns his life upside down, Paul decides to take the law into his own hands after acquiring an unregistered gun off of a gangbanger who’s brought into the E.R. He quickly sets off a media frenzy as he kills random criminals, as well as those connected with Lucy’s murder, yet for all the debate kicked up among talk shows about whether the hoodie-wearing man known only as the Grim Reaper is morally justified, the film never doubts Paul’s brand of justice.
Paul views tough-looking men of color on the streets with feverish paranoia, even though he has no idea what race his wife’s killers are. When he takes to the streets dispensing vigilante justice, only once does the film acknowledge the uneasiness of a hooded white man killing predominantly Latino and black gangbangers and being held up as a folk hero. But that qualm is swiftly brushed away as soon as Paul’s actions garner broader public support, even among the bystanders whose lives he recklessly endangers.
Other characters throughout Death Wish reinforce Paul’s worldview in subliminal ways. Detective Rains (Dean Norris), the lead investigator in Paul’s case, spots the widower staring blankly at a wall of unsolved murders and reassures the man that most of the dead were gang members and that his wife’s murder is “different.” Roth’s film never digs into the moral worth of Paul’s actions, largely restricting all discussion on the matter to transition scenes depicting “morning zoo” radio hosts superficially debating the merits of the Grim Reaper’s actions. Paul himself certainly doesn’t question his behavior, save for one moment of pause when he learns that a fellow middle-aged white man died while trying to follow in his vigilante footsteps.
Aesthetically, Roth’s Death Wish couldn’t be further away from the earthy tones and gritty detail of Winner’s original. The cinematography adopts the palette of teal and orange that filmmakers shooting on video have only recently started to abandon. Throughout, the texture of the film’s images is so artificially smooth that Willis’s head often resembles a wad of Silly Putty. Roth borrows style cues from the likes of John Wick but fails to apply any visual stamp of his own to the proceedings. Worse, he and screenwriter Joe Carnahan seem to have gotten it in their heads that they were making a Shane Black film, given how Paul’s increasingly violent actions become more slapstick. But Black always provides an impishly self-reflexive view of the callousness that abounds in his work. In Death Wish, though, the increasingly antic comedy collides with Willis’s dead-eyed demeanor, which casts a psychotic, unfeeling pall over Paul’s snappy one-liners that’s never reconciled with Roth and Carnahan’s flippant view of violence and vigilantism.
On that count, though, Roth and Carnahan may not be entirely to blame, as many other filmmakers before them have written parts for a Bruce Willis who no longer exists. Though the actor spends much of Death Wish buried beneath hoodies, the film offers an uncomfortably direct view of his almost animatronic deployment of his signature tics, from wry smirks to stone-cold staring. And the film’s lifeless comedy is somewhat offset by the unintentional humor of Willis’s half-hearted attempts to capture the softer side of Paul’s domestic life. The character’s ostensibly affectionate smiles toward his family come off as rictuses on his face, as if Willis were attempting to disprove the notion that it takes more muscles to frown. Worst of all is any scene where Paul has to say “I love you,” a sentence that Willis delivers with approximately the level of conviction as an Al Qaeda hostage reciting a false confession.
Willis was once the most charismatic of his generation of blockbuster action stars, the relative everyman amid the bodybuilders and martial artists. His characters spoke for the audience in their sardonic commentary on the situations around them. But now Willis’s rakish, sarcastic charm has given way to a tedious grumpiness. Death Wish is but the latest and most garish example of Willis acting as if it causes him physical pain, growling through his lines in muted disgust at having to slum through a cheap pulp exploitation. In that sense, perhaps, maybe he still is the voice of the viewer.