Friday, March 2, 2018

Death Wish: A fate this film deserves

Death Wish (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity, dramatic intensity, strong violence and gore

By Derrick Bang

If director Eli Roth is hoping for mainstream respectability, this isn’t the right path.

The original Charles Bronson Death Wish was a cultural flashpoint back in 1974 (its four progressively tawdry sequels, not so much). The political divide was incendiary, with mounting raucous protests ultimately helping to force a corrupt president from office; big-city crime and street violence were out of control; the older generation was dismayed by a younger generation that seemed not to care about much of anything.

While working his way up the bad guy food chain in pursuit of the creep who orchestrated
the invasion of his home, Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis, right) employs rather unsual tactics
to extract information from a thug.
Half the country viewed Bronson’s film as a fascist nightmare; the other half thought his character’s actions fell under the heading of Damn Well About Time.

Things change ... not so much.

There’s no question that Roth and scripter Joe Carnahan’s updated remake is well-timed, but — sadly — reaction to this film is likely to be even more polarized. Half the audience will regard it as an irresponsible NRA recruitment tool; the other half, once again, will smile in satisfaction and think, Hey, that’s a good way to solve some problems.

The third half, based on Wednesday evening’s preview screening, will chortle gleefully each time Bruce Willis dispatches a baddie. And that’s perhaps even more disturbing.

Granted, this updated Death Wish has some mild laugh lines; most, however, derive from the verbal skirmishes between Paul Kersey (Willis) and investigating detectives Kevin Raines (Dean Norris) and Leonore Jackson (Kimberly Elise).

I fail to see how watching some guy’s eyes pop out of his graphically crushed head warrants a chuckle, let alone rip-snortin’ peals of laughter. But that’s to be expected from Roth’s core fan base, which — let us recall — laps up the torture-porn trash for which he is best known: Cabin Fever, The Green Inferno, the Hostel series and others I’ve blissfully forgotten.

Roth may have attracted a solid cast for this outing, and the film may benefit from whatever name-brand recognition its predecessor still delivers ... but as the (original) saying goes, a hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog.

The core story hasn’t changed much. Dedicated Chicago surgeon Paul Kersey has it all: a hospital practice at which he excels; a loving wife (Elisabeth Shue, as Lucy); a devoted daughter (Camila Morrone, as Jordan), who just got into the college of her choice; and a gorgeous home in an upscale neighborhood.

No sign of a dog. Seems like they should have a dog.

The film’s opening montage eavesdrops on police band frequencies, radio talk shows and social media exchanges obsessed with the same thing: shooting statistics — injuries and homicides — that are salaciously exaggerated for the purposes of this storyline. Indeed, social media’s ability to fan the flames is one of the culture shifts acknowledged by Carnahan’s script, but he does little beyond exploiting it.

What soon happens to Kersey’s family also results from technological “progress,” and it’s a sharply effective reminder that the “interconnectedness of all things” can be a very, very bad idea.

In the aftermath, a grief-stricken Kersey is left numb: unable to get through each day, uncertain what to do next. His brother Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio), something of a financial mooch, isn’t much help; father-in-law Ben (Len Cariou) pops up just long enough to mutter angrily about a man’s need to defend his castle.

Kersey does all the right things during his early interactions with Raines and Jackson, but he can see they’re overwhelmed. Flickering alternative thoughts — and a hilariously overblown TV ad (which, sadly, probably isn’t unrealistic) — lead him to a local Guns R Us, but he clocks the ubiquitous security cameras and opts out.

A weapon of choice falls into his hands through sheer caprice, and he takes advantage. Unable to do anything about his own family, Kersey embarks on a late-night campaign of random social justice. Once again due to social media, his activities don’t go unnoticed, although the protective hoodies conceal his identity.

And so the anonymous slayings of criminals grabs everybody’s attention, and radio pundits debate whether this mysterious avenger is a guardian angel or a grim reaper.

It’s a valid debate — and quite timely, at the moment — but no more than white noise in this film. Roth and Carnahan couldn’t care less about the gun argument; they’re focused solely on increasingly vicarious mayhem.

That’s the key difference between this film and its 1974 predecessor. Love him or hate him, Bronson’s Kersey was never more than an average citizen who wielded a gun with escalating skill and anger. Willis’ Kersey, although initially cut from the same uncertain and unpracticed cloth, rapidly morphs into a superhero who — during one notorious sequence — sets up a death trap that’d be more at home in the Saw franchise. With similar results.

Roth just can’t help reverting to his gleefully gruesome, splatter-happy self.

Willis swans through most of the film with an immovable stone face that makes Bronson look like Olivier. Granted, Willis’ Kersey is supposed to be tamped down by grief, but his somnambulance more frequently seems the result of too many Quaaludes.

He therefore becomes the least interesting character in his own film. Norris’ Detective Raines has buckets more personality, and has a lot of fun with a running gag involving his need to lose weight. D’Onofrio’s Frank is intriguing for the questions that flutter in his orbit; there’s something about the guy that always seems a bit ... off.

Morrone is adorably bubbly as Jordan, and Shue makes Lucy the world’s best wife and mother. Indeed, the two actress’ early scenes with Willis make him look better than he deserves.

Heck, even Beau Knapp — as the primary baddie, Knox — better utilizes his screen time. Knapp looks impressively sinister to begin with, and his performance here is chilling.

Ludwig Göransson’s so-called score is unremarkable, and most frequently drowned out by a barrage of offensively profane shock rap.

All told, this Death Wish is about what can be expected from a low-rent exploitation flick. It’s sad to see the likes of Willis headlining such disposable junk ... but, then, he doesn’t bring much to the party either.

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