Death Wish (2018)

*. It took a while, but finally got done. I think there had been talk of a remake of Death Wish ever since the initial franchise died with Death Wish V: The Face of Death in 1994. Various names had been attached to the project at various stages of development. Until, finally . . .
*. As thing worked out, the remake was a victim of bad timing, being released less than a month after the Parkland school shooting and the usual uptick in interest in gun violence that follows such events. I think this may explain some of the critical drubbing it took, because it’s not that bad a movie judged on its own.
*. The thing is, it was always such a simple story to begin with, and was then imitated so many times, there was scarcely any way for director Eli Roth to make it new. I think he tried, and enjoyed some limited success. But at the end of the day he just didn’t have enough to work with. Fans were expecting the classic story so he had to deliver on that, but he couldn’t juice it enough to make it interesting.
*. When I say Roth didn’t have that much to work with what I mostly mean is that the screenplay was by Joe Carnahan, the genius behind Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team (both of which were very bad scripts). Kersey’s father-in-law tells him, after shooting at a poacher on his Texas ranch (a poacher?) that “If a man really wants to protect what’s his. He has to do it for himself.” Seeing his daughter in hospital Kersey says “Look what these animals did to my baby!” After tying one of the malefactors up beneath a hoisted automobile Kersey waits until he says “You’re not going to kill me!” Which lets Kersey say “No, Jack is.” He yanks on a chain, pulling out the jack and lets the car crush him. Really. I do wonder how some people continue to find work.
*. But wait! Apparently there were some nine writers working on the screenplay and almost none of Carnahan’s original dialogue remained in the script they actually shot. So I’ll give him a pass (how he got the sole screenwriting credit is another question). Plus The Grey was actually pretty good.
*. Like I say though, Roth does try. I was dreading the rape-murder scene that kicks things off and was pleasantly surprised that he elects to do that part off camera. Elsewhere he kills one of the gang members by having a bowling ball accidentally fall on his head. He nicely develops the idea of the Grim Reaper turning into an Internet sensation: from being a YouTube star to becoming a meme and a hashtag (Kersey himself is also a product of the Internet, having learned many of the tricks of his trade from online videos). He presents Kersey’s basement as a fetid man cave. And, best of all, he makes terrific use of split screen when we see Kersey’s personality splitting as he finally breaks bad, contrasting the life-saving doctor with the life-taking Grim Reaper (all to the tune of AC/DC’s “Back in Black”). I don’t usually care much for split screen, but here’s it’s perfectly apt and very well done.

*. The problem, as I’ve said, is that we’ve been here too many times before. Bruce Willis is fine, but he does seem bored with the proceedings. I tried hard to think of some reason why Vincent D’Onofrio’s character had to be introduced and couldn’t come up with much. Aside from the bowling ball there isn’t even much to the kills aside from a gallery of splatter effects on the walls and one nice broken neck. There’s also a torture sequence included (“signature Eli Roth” according to producer Roger Birnbaum) that doesn’t impress much and which seems slightly out of character even for the bad doctor.

*. A final reflection I’d make is on how much tamer a film this seems than the original. This isn’t just a comment on the fact that the murder and rape of the wife and daughter isn’t shown (which I’ve already mentioned feeling grateful about). In fact there seems not to have been any rape involved, and the whole incident was just a burglary gone wrong (the family weren’t supposed to be home). More than this, there’s also the fact that the irony in the original, where Kersey doesn’t actually kill any of the guys who killed his wife, is rejected for the more cathartic (and conventional) revenge story here. Also cleaned up is the daughter’s injury. In the original she survives but only as a vegetable. Here she’s off to university at the end, looking none the worse for what she’s been through.
*. Why these specific changes, making this film, despite the passage of so much time, less dangerous and more predictable? Primarily, I think, the bottom line. A mass audience today demands all those cathartic kills and that happy ending. As Roth notes in his commentary, it’s a superhero story, with Willis’s hoodie (this is my observation now) not having any political message but rather linking him to his character in Unbreakable, where he plays another media star-vigilante hero. That they still managed to stir up controversy must have upset everyone, as that was surely no part of the plan.

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