Bruce Willis sleepwalks through Death Wish, a listless remake of the Charles Bronson vigilante movie that made a bunch money back in the 1970s, one year before Jaws was released. (I measure most things in the ’70s by the year Jaws was released. It’s a thing.)
On paper, this looked like a potentially nasty fun project, considering Eli Roth was at the helm, and Willis was in the Bronson role. Sylvester Stallone gave the remake possibility some steam years ago, but subsequently chickened out. Then John McClane himself stepped into the role—and the remake started to take shape.
Sadly, Willis is phoning it in here—and too many horribly acted scenes reveal that Willis and Roth probably didn’t gel as an actor/director combo. Willis seems tone deaf in some of the movie’s more dramatic scenes, and just plain bored in the remainder. When Willis gives a shit about the movie he’s making, it shows—but when he doesn’t care (which seems to be the case in many of his recent projects), he is zombie-like.
The original Death Wish, from 1974, is a hard watch these days. Apart from its racist depictions of criminals and extremely dated Herbie Hancock soundtrack, it’s poorly acted by Bronson. It is, however, worth seeing for walk-ons by Christopher Guest as a police officer and, most horrifically, Jeff Goldblum as Freak No. 1. They would both go on to do much, much better things. The film actually marked Goldblum’s acting debut; he took part in the infamous scene in which the daughter and wife of architect Paul Kersey are attacked. It’s a terrible scene—almost comedic now more than 40 years later. For the remake, that attack scene is mellowed out a bit (nobody gets their ass spray-painted), with Elisabeth Shue as Mrs. Kersey and Camila Morrone as their daughter. As in the original, one of them doesn’t survive the attack—and Paul gets a taste for weaponry and vigilante justice in the aftermath.
Unlike in the original, many of Kersey’s crimes are not random. This time, he’s out for revenge, playing a detective of sorts as he seeks out and eliminates his family’s attackers while slipping in the occasional drug-dealer execution. Bronson’s Kersey was an architect living in Manhattan; while Willis’ Kersey is an emergency-room doctor in Chicago. No actor has ever looked sillier in scrubs than Willis.
Roth, of course, is best known as a horror director (Cabin Fever, Hostel), and that shows in a couple of the “kills,” including one in which a thug is crushed by a car, and his guts squirt out. The scene in which this happens, with Kersey executing a meticulously planned torture act on a bad guy, feels utterly ridiculous. The whole point of Death Wish is a real guy taking (mostly) real action with real consequences. This scene is outrageous torture porn, like an outtake from Roth’s lousy Hostel: Part II.
Roth usually makes a good-looking movie, and his films often have a good, sinister humor streak to go with the carnage. That doesn’t happen this time: The attempts at dark humor fall flat, and only Vincent D’Onofrio as Frank, Paul’s sad brother, hits the right notes with his performance. D’Onofrio seems to be giving it his all, while Willis acts like somebody with true contempt for his director and really swell dinner reservations.
Dean Norris (Hank from Breaking Bad) shows up alongside Kimberly Elise as the investigators on Kersey’s trail. They try to get a couple of laughs, but they can’t rise above the mirth. Shue and Morrone are OK, but don’t have enough screen time to really register.
There is one moment in this movie that works: The final shot, in which Willis re-creates Bronson’s point-and-shoot moment from the original. Willis actually looks like he’s got the vibe right—and seems interested in the shot. Sadly, these few seconds are the only ones in which he properly earned his payday.
Death Wish is playing at theaters across the valley.