Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Action icon Bruce Willis (who has been relatively quiet on the big screen over the last few years) is back to his bad guy killing ways in Death Wish, a remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson film (which was adapted from the 1972 book by Brian Garfield). The film is a little more thought-provoking than I had expected, though it does not actually explore any of the ideas it raises. It aspires to be a well-made exploitation picture, and that is exactly what it is.
Willis plays Paul Kersey, a surgeon in Chicago. One night while he is at work, armed thieves break into his house. His wife, Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) is killed and his daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone) is put into a coma. After he becomes frustrated with the lack of progress made by Detectives Raines (Dean Norris, best known as Hank Schrader on AMC’s Breaking Bad) and Jackson (Kimberly Elise), he takes matters into his own hands and becomes a vigilante avenger.
Bruce Willis has a good presence for a story like this and director Eli Roth (mainly known for his work in horror, he also has a family fantasy film coming out this fall, the young adult novel adaptation The House with a Clock in its Walls) is successful at staging scenes to make Willis’ character look like an amateur when it comes to violence. He is never turned into a superhero to make things more exciting. The action scenes are intense and stay consistent with the story and characters. The way the Willis character handles these moments is very realistic inside the reality of this particular story. However, the action is also pretty gruesome in several instances (Death Wish is very much an R-rated action movie), which makes it more about its gore and much less about the concepts of vigilantism and the ability of police to do their jobs well in high-crime areas (the film is set in Chicago).
Those ideas are introduced on the periphery of the main story. Mainly, they are heard during brief snippets of local talk radio programming, with people discussing the actions of the Bruce Willis character. What he is doing is obviously illegal, but is it okay because he is acting against criminals? Or should he just leave it to the police? The movie seems to want it both ways with the way it treats its subject matter. Vigilantism might be dangerous, but it looks so cool when Bruce Willis does it!
In the end though, it is just raising those questions to add some color to its simple revenge plot. And that is just fine. Death Wish (100 minutes, minus the end credits) is exactly what you would think it would be. Screenwriter Joe Carnahan really sneaks those ideas in to make his violent revenge tale slightly more provocative than it had to be. They are there for audience members to debate afterword, if they want. But if you just want to enjoy Bruce Willis shooting criminals, that other stuff does not get in the way.
The movie succeeds to the extent that it does because Bruce Willis knows exactly what to do in a movie like this. Additionally, Eli Roth paces the movie very well. He also balances the drama of a man dealing with a sudden, unexpected tragedy and the action aspect of the story effectively. The rest of the cast handles their limited roles well. Vincent D’Onofrio, as the protagonist’s brother, Frank, plays his character like he has a lot going on off-screen. He is a complicated guy who is not just sitting around worrying about his brother. I liked D’Onofrio and Willis’ scenes together and wish the movie spent a little more time on their relationship. But, again, that is not the movie they set out to make.
Death Wish is an effective, well-made, film that is just not that interesting to watch. Willis and the overall production were good enough to keep me occupied, but I never cared about Paul Kersey and I was not particularly thrilled by the action. Action-wise, it is precisely what you would expect from a Death Wish remake directed by Eli Roth and starring Bruce Willis in 2018. But in terms of its drama, it leaves a lot to be desired.
2¾ out of 5
Bruce Willis as Paul Kersey
Vincent D’Onofrio as Frank Kersey
Dean Norris as Detective Kevin Raines
Camila Morrone as Jordan Kersey
Elisabeth Shue as Lucy Kersey
Kimberly Elise as Detective Leonore Jackson
Directed by Eli Roth
Screenplay by Joe Carnahan