Film Review: “Death Wish” Deserves a Quick Demise

Film poster: “Death Wish”

Death Wish (Eli Roth, 2018) 1 out of 4 stars.

It should come as no surprise that filmmaker Eli Roth gives us a Death Wish filled with gory scenes of death, brains spewed hither and thither. After all, why should the man who created such splatter-fests as Cabin Fever and Hostel (and its sequel) stop now? What shocks, instead, is the tepid flow of the central narrative, through which the violent flotsam and jetsam that is the director’s hallmark weaves and bobs, adrift in a weak current. I am no fan of on-screen blood and guts, but given the inanity of the central story, I’d take anything – OK, almost anything – that might depart from the generic nature of this dispiriting affair.

Based on the eponymous 1972 novel, by Brian Garfield – previously adapted into the 1974 movie of the same name, starring Charles Bronson – Roth’s Death Wish begins with Dr. Paul Kersey, a Chicago Shock Trauma surgeon, at peace with his career and family, his wife about to complete a long-sought Ph.D. and his daughter heading off to NYU. Life is good, until one day it is not. A trio of criminals breaks into his house while Kersey is in the E.R., assaulting wife and daughter, and thus begins our protagonist’s journey towards vigilantism, once he realizes the police, overwhelmed, are unable to help. A man must protect his family at all costs, lest he be a failure, and so Kersey straps on a gun and strides through the streets, a vengeful slayer of the unjust. Just what the world needs in 2018, right?

(l to r.) Camila Morrone as Jordan Kersey, Elisabeth Shue as Lucy Kersey, and Bruce Willis as Paul Kersey star in DEATH WISH, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures film.

As a fan of Westerns, I have certainly seen my share of cinematic firearms in the service of revenge plots, and enjoyed the action. Somehow, the contemporary setting makes it distasteful, no matter how many pundits within the movie discuss the right and wrong of the “Grim Reaper” (as Kersey’s alter ego becomes known), or “white man in a hoodie” (another moniker). He’s our hero, after all, and since we empathize with his pain, so do we with his brutal therapy. To anyone who fears that, yes, the liberals are coming for your guns, this is the movie for you, offering up the ideal fantasy of why they should leave you and the 2nd Amendment alone.

All of that would matter less if the film had a solid script, which it does not. Though the initial setup gives Kersey a powerful, and believable, motivation, everything that follows strains credulity, including a final shoot-out that is laughable in execution. Not even the occasional grim humor of the scenes in which Kersey dispatches yet another criminal can elevate the film beyond the pedestrian, though Bruce Willis (Looper), in the lead, is his usual appealing self. Others who struggle, in vain, to make this entertaining, include: Vincent D’Onofrio (Wilson Fisk on Marvel’s Daredevil), as Kersey’s brother, whom Roth frames in suspicious angles as a dramatic red herring; Dean Norris (Hank on AMC’s Breaking Bad) – a shorter, wider doppelgänger to Willis – as a hapless detective; and Elisabeth Shue (House at the End of the Street), as Kersey’s ill-fated wife. Their gallant efforts notwithstanding, Death Wish deserves a quick demise.

Bruce Willis stars as Paul Kersey in DEATH WISH, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures film.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic here at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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