Timing is everything and nothing
I don’t know how Death Wish‘s release wasn’t delayed. It is quite possibly the most ill-timed release in the history of cinema. A gun-toting vigilante mows down “bad guys” in Chicago with gags about the ease of getting a fire arm, torture porn, and a heavy dose of lines about what it really means to be a man? Yeah, let’s release that two weeks after a mass shooting at a high school that has sparked national outrage towards gun violence, an introspective look at masculinity, and brought out some of the worst this country has to offer. That sounds like a super great idea.
I know these things are planned way ahead of time, but, with digital cinema, studios can and will delay releases just a week in advance. Maybe MGM just gave up. After its trailer dropped at an insanely terrible time near a recent, nationally-reported shooting maybe they thought they’d be in the clear. But after a mass shooting basically happened every week since then they just said, “Screw it, if we don’t do it now, we’ll never release it.”
The worst part about it? The movie would suck no matter when it was released.
Director: Eli Roth
Release Date: March 2, 2018
If you’ve seen the original Death Wish (or really any other revenge thriller), you’ve seen this Death Wish — just add in a ton more Eli Roth-style gore and violence. In this one, Dr. Paul Kersey’s (Bruce Willis) wife gets murdered and his daughter is put into a coma during a robbery gone wrong. The cops are ineffective so Kersey, through some strokes of luck, starts taking out bad guys on his own, to get revenge. This means getting a gun and randomly shooting at bad people until he’s killed the right ones.
The original Death Wish was one of the earliest in the genre, and helped define how revenge films should function. Then, these movies got progressively hokier, and eventually downright bad, but for the most part, they functioned. Revenge films can function, and they can be violent, and they can involve gore. These aren’t at all the issues with this film. The issue is Death Wish doesn’t function as a revenge film. The killing seems to revel only in the act itself, not in the pursuit of justice.
In a good revenge movie you get a feeling of satisfaction when the bad guy dies at the hands of the vigilante. By the end of this one, you just feel gross. Maybe it’s partly the timing of it all, but Roth also does a terrible job of making you care about anyone in the movie. The wife and daughter are so cookie-cutter it’s nearly impossible to care when they’re hurt, and Willis’s Kersey is actually unlikeable from the very start.
It’s so bad that if it had come out a year ago — hell, three weeks ago — it might have been some entertaining camp. There are interspersed moments that are just gory fun, and Willis gets to drop some killer (pun intended) one-liners. And maybe, and this is a big maybe, Roth was actually trying to mock gun culture and hyper-masculinity by pushing everything to the nth degree. However, it’s not three weeks ago, and it doesn’t play out like some sort of dark commentary on America’s soul. It plays tone deaf. If Roth was trying to say something, he did a piss poor job of it, and judging from the director’s cinematic history I find it hard to believe he was.
The film’s deaths verge well into traditional Roth territory, with uber-violent killings and exploding guts all over the screen. It’s the kind of stuff that made Hostel work, and Hostel 2 not, This violence has a place in the horror films Roth usually directs. However, in a revenge thriller it just feels gratuitous. The mentality that makes slasher films fun to watch is not the mentality that’s needed for a movie about a guy killing a bunch of people for revenge. Yes, that can be violent too, but in this context, the joy Roth takes in showing gore feels disturbing, not fun. By the end Bruce Willis (and the film) have basically gone full Die Hard 5, ripping away any pretext at the originally conceived every-man story in a quest for more violence and action.
It really, really, really doesn’t help how little almost the entire cast cares about being in this movie. You can practically see Willis cashing the check in the opening scene, delivering his performance through a face that is best defined by a picture of a slab of concrete. He delivers most of his lines with so little emotion or care that I had to wonder if they’d actually just made a CGI Bruce Willis because REAL Bruce Willis had wisely turned the role down.
Vincent D’Onofrio must have owed someone some money, or something, because that’s the only reason I can see him taking on the nothing role that is Kersey’s brother, and Dean Norris looks so tired of playing bumbling police officers that I’m pretty sure he was asleep for half the film. Unless Roth’s main direction to all of them was to not act engaged, they all did not want to be in this movie.
I’m not sure what we’re supposed to have learned by the end of the film, but you definitely don’t feel a sense of justice being served. The movie intercuts radio hosts debating whether or not this hooded vigilante is doing the right thing, in an attempt to give the film some sort of moral core. But that core is so rotten that nothing can be derived from it. Death Wish is a bad film, full of bad performances, released at a bad time, for bad reasons.