Review: Bruce Willis Can’t Save an Empty Death Wish

Going out on a limb here, I’m guessing this reboot of Death Wish will not play well in Chicago, where it is actually set and appears to have been mostly filmed. As much as I love seeing my fair city featured in just about anything, the idea of it being the backdrop for a story about its out-of-control gun problem being the inspiration for a private citizen to take up arms and go around murdering bad guys may not sit well with many.

Then again, it may sit well with quite a few folks. And just because something is in bad taste doesn’t mean it’s a terrible movie. In fact, this new incarnation of Death Wish has quite a few memorable, even entertaining, things about it.

Death Wish Bruce Willis

Image courtesy of MGM

Something of a change of pace for director Eli Roth (the Hostel movies, Knock Knock), who’s working from a script by Joe Carnahan (based loosely on Brian Garfield’s novel, which also inspired a 1974 film of the same name starring Charles Bronson), this take on the vigilante/revenge tale features Bruce Willis as Chicago emergency room doctor Paul Kersey, who lives in Evanston with his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) and pre-college daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone). Some burglars get a tip that the Kerseys will be out of their house one night for the doctor’s birthday celebration. But when the family’s plans are cancelled, Lucy and Jordan surprise the three criminals in their home. Before the night is done, one person is dead, another is in a coma fighting for her life, and Dr. Kersey is almost crippled with grief.

Although the detectives assigned the case (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) seem competent and genuinely eager to solve the case, their cork board of unsolved cases is massive (it is Chicago, remember) and their resources are limited. And while they welcome the doctor checking in from time to time on the status of the investigation, their news for him is rarely encouraging.

At one point in the film, Kersey’s father-in-law (a great cameo by Len Cariou) seems to indicate that “in his day,” a man took care of such matters himself—a piece of advice that leads Kersey to look into buying a gun. He opts not to, but when a shooting victim is brought into the hospital shortly thereafter, a gun drops off her person and onto the floor right in front of Kersey’s feet, and somehow no one notices but him. What a lucky break for us all.

Admittedly, it’s somewhat amusing to watch Willis play a character who has no experience with a gun, and his getting used to handling one results in one or two amusing moments in the film. But eventually he begins skulking around Chicago’s mean streets with his hoodie pulled up over his head and pistol tucked into the back of his pants. Before long, an attempted carjacking happens right in front of him and he manages to kill both perpetrators, injuring his hand in the process. He’s actually filmed by a bystander, the video goes viral, and he gets nicknamed “The Reaper,” becoming a folk hero to some, a menace to others. And it turns out our favorite pair of detectives get assigned to this case as well, making it almost certain at some point they’ll figure out something fishy is going on.

It probably goes without saying that Kersey’s ultimate goal is to find the three men who destroyed his family, and it’s during this process that we remember that it’s Eli Roth who helmed this version of Death Wish. The “interrogations” of these men are gruesome, bordering on unwatchable at times, particularly one upon whom Kersey uses his skills as a surgeon. And that’s not even the worst part of that particular sequence. And while I’m not inherently against the blood and guts presented here, it does seem wildly out of character for this simple family man who, as far as we know, has never shown tendencies toward torturing someone to suddenly embrace the practice so completely…and with a sadistic grin on his face.

Death Wish is about a lot of things that are very timely—gun violence, escalating retaliation, witnesses not coming forward in a case, the media circus around violent crimes, and a great deal more—but it never quite digs in deep enough to be considered a message movie. If anything, I’m guessing Carnahan’s original script was more geared toward putting society under a microscope, but someone (perhaps Roth, perhaps Willis) said, “What can we do to make this more of a Bruce Willis movie?,” which is exactly what this feels like. Willis is a capable enough actor, which is why it’s frustrating seeing him play a character who gets a taste for blood rather than play the grieving family man with one mission that he can barely fulfill because of how much he hates violence. When the radio deejay Mancow is your biggest defender in a film, you know you’ve gone down the wrong path.

One of the film’s more interesting choices is casting Vincent D’Onofrio as Kersey’s brother Frank, a slightly shady guy who is always looking to borrow money to keep his head above water and who you suspect is up to something. For most of the film, I assumed a connection between Frank and the robbery that never really manifests. Maybe that’s because it’s D’Onofrio, and his characters tend to break bad at some point regardless of who he’s playing. Sometimes, the character seems so wedged into the film that we’re wondering what the payoff is going to be, and while he does factor into how Death Wish plays out, it’s weirdly unsatisfying; he feels like a walking reshoot.

Considering most of Willis’s output of late goes straight to VOD, there’s a part of me that is just happy to see him on the big screen from time to time. In fact, he’s pretty good here, if somewhat predictable, and Death Wish is far from an outright terrible movie. But the film comes across with a severe case of split personality, and while I’m usually fond of movies that dance from one tone to another to keep us on our toes, it doesn’t work as well here. There’s too much of a disconnect between the simple, caring doctor and the calculated vigilante. It’s a closer call than I thought it would be, and there are certainly elements done exceedingly well. But overall, Death Wish left me empty and disappointed.

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