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Dustin Putman

Death Wish  (2018)
2½ Stars
Directed by Eli Roth.
Cast: Bruce Willis, Vincent D'Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise, Camila Morrone, Beau Knapp, Wendy Crewson, Len Cariou, Jack Kesy, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Luis Oliva, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Stephanie Janusauskas, Ian Matthews, Andreas Apergis, Warona Setshwaelo, Isaiah Gero-Marsman, Mike Epps, Sway Calloway.
2018 – 107 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong bloody violence, and language throughout).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, March 1, 2018.
"Death Wish" delivers exactly what is expected, and sometimes that's enough. In adapting Brian Garfield's 1972 novel—previously made into a 1974 starring vehicle for Charles Bronson that ultimately spawned four sequels—director Eli Roth (2015's "The Green Inferno") and writer Joe Carnahan (2012's "The Grey") have updated the time to the present, the location from New York City to a crime-riddled Chicago, and the lead character's profession from architect to surgeon. The bones of the premise, however, remain the same, taking Bruce Willis' (2017's "Once Upon a Time in Venice") Paul Kersey through hell and back as he experiences a senseless tragedy and opts to take the law into his own hands. The film is bloody and violent, but also carries with it an emotional enough core to make the controversial question it poses—Is vigilante justice ever morally warranted?—worth asking.

As Paul Kersey sees it, he's done everything right: he has a great career, he shares a happy life with wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) and teenage daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone), and he's always made sure to follow the letter of the law. None of that matters, though, when a home invasion and robbery turns deadly. Forced to bury one loved one while the other lies comatose in the hospital, a bereft Paul grows increasingly frustrated when it appears the detectives assigned to his case, Kevin Raines (Dean Norris) and Leonore Jackson (Kimberly Elise), are no closer to fingering suspects. Increasingly disenfranchised by a city where nearly 50 shootings occur every weekend, Paul begins packing heat and scoping out lowlifes and criminals, effectively becoming an infamous self-made judge and executioner whom the media dub "The Grim Reaper."

In the original "Death Wish," Charles Bronson's muddy-watered hero never did find the killers responsible for destroying his family and, truth be told, didn't seem to concern himself with looking. Instead, he took to the nighttime city streets, a gun at the ready, daring anyone to threaten him or commit criminal activities within his sightlines. The Paul of this remake starts the same way, but then does begin to investigate the culprits responsible for tearing his life apart. This gives the character more motive and the narrative more urgency. It also helps that, in Bruce Willis' own understated, straight-faced way, he exhibits grief over the atrocities done to his wife and daughter; Bronson, by comparison, seemingly sleepwalked through his role, reacting to tragedy with the same level of emotion one uses to roast a pot of coffee.

Eli Roth, he of frequently grand, gory gestures in horror features such as 2003's "Cabin Fever," 2006's "Hostel" and 2007's "Hostel: Part II," brings a similar wicked glint here while nevertheless anchoring it in a semblance of reality where Paul's hooded vigilantism becomes a viral sensation. As a national debate breaks out over whether what he is doing is commendable, felonious, or a little of both, Paul edges closer to locating the guilty parties who pulled the trigger on his wife and daughter. The plot trajectory is predictable, but the picture as a whole is tautly directed, oddly likable, and occasionally wince-inducing (it turns out brake fluid being poured into a sciatic nerve wound isn't at all pleasant). In a current environment where mass shootings occur in the U.S. every week and the gun-control debate is more fevered than ever, the film walks a fine line on its own stance, but does take time to ridicule how easy it is for a person with no firearms experience to walk into a store and buy a gun.

It is difficult to criticize a film like "Death Wish" too much when it so fully and skillfully embraces the conventions of its revenge-flick subgenre. Still, one must question how much more interesting, even empowering, it might have been with a gender twist, casting Bruce Willis as the victimized husband and Elisabeth Shue (2017's "Battle of the Sexes") as the bereaved, fed-up vigilante. No matter, "Death Wish" remains a one-part sleek, one-part down-and-dirty crowd-pleaser, and the warmth and vivaciousness Shue brings to her role lingers crucially over the proceedings even when she exits the stage. The family unit set up early on is so instantly likable (it doesn't hurt that their introduction is underscored by The Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby"), one can't help but wish these characters were in a wildly different movie—preferably a comedy where nothing truly bad ever happens.
© 2018 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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