The question on everyone’s lips is, of course, is this remake as good as the original? The answer is, it’s not even as good as Death Wish 5: The Face of Death, which saw a seventy-something Charles Bronson takes on some mobsters including one called Freddie Flakes. The new version isn’t actually a Death Wish film at all, aside from citing Brian Garfield’s superb 1972 novel as source material. Director Eli Roth’s new effort is no different from the hundreds of revenge thrillers that clutter the DVD shelves at Asda, usually starring Nicolas Cage, John Travolta, or even Willis himself, where a man must avenge the death of his wife and so on, and ends up with a bazooka or whatnot taking down an entire crime cartel (see the recently released direct to landfill L.A Vengeance, with Willis in John Wick mode as a man hunting down the men who stole his dog). As one of these cheap knock-offs this might have passed muster, but why slap the Death Wish name all over it? It’s an insult to the original, and the reasons for that are legion.
Let’s start at the beginning. Garfield’s bestselling novel is a nuanced and shocking story of a mild-mannered, out of shape New York accountant, Paul Benjamin, who, reluctantly, takes the law into his own hands after his family is attacked by thugs in their New York apartment. It spawned the film which in itself spawned a whole sub-genre of mild-mannered man turns killing machine movies. What’s interesting about the book is that Benjamin is a 1970s version of an SJW – a liberal, a do-gooder, the sort of person who, if he saw a man being stabbed in the street, would point to the knifeman and shout “Quick, this person needs psychiatric counselling immediately!”. His notions are turned on their head when he comes face to face with violence perpetrated by the type of people he was keen to excuse as guiltless products of their environment. Benjamin has to acknowledge, as a character in the novel says that “tolerance of evil can be an evil itself” – and must mete out violence himself to somehow balance the books.
Michael Winner’s film adaptation, on the face of it, was miscast. Benjamin, renamed as Paul Kersey, is now an architect, and, in the guise of Charles Bronson there is no question he is going to start shooting New York scumbags indiscriminately, once he’s got over his initial qualms about doing a bit of killing. But it is still a superb thriller, and not a revenge thriller per se, as Bronson has no clue as to who killed his wife and left his daughter in a coma, or how to find them. He’s just doing his bit to make New York safer by blasting away at random muggers. It was a huge hit, and a controversial one – did the film, in fact, condone vigilantism? Did it, years later, influence notorious New York subway shooter Bernhard Goetz? The debate rumbled on… was crime out of control, and what were the police doing about it?
Reading the book and rewatching the Winner film now, it is surprising how pertinent the issues raised still are. In that respect, a remake, or an updating, would seem like a very good idea indeed. Urban decay, gun crime, society in breakdown – it’s like the 1970s all over again! Except director Roth (fresh off the catastrophe Knock Knock) – with a turgid, by-the-numbers script by Joe Carnahan (who wrote and directed the brilliant The Grey) – addresses none of this. Given the current climate, and the fact the film has been relocated to Chicago (where actual gang violence is at boiling point) – we shouldn’t have got a B-movie about a burglary in the suburbs, whose highpoint is a shoot out in the men’s toilets of a fashionable nightclub.
Where Winner’s film was iconic and chilling, Roth’s is flat and listless. Part of this is due to the casting of Bruce Willis, here remodelled as a trauma surgeon, seemingly for the sole purpose of showing, in split-screen, him on the one hand plucking out bullets in the hospital, while on the other he is shooting at hoodlums (while Roth bashes our brains in with the irony of it all). Willis is a brilliant actor, but, we are too accustomed to him coolly brandishing a gun, and it’s difficult to buy him needing to spend hours in a deserted lock-up practising firing a pistol. Willis seems strangely underpowered here, never rising to the occasion – it is as if his heart is really not in it. Supposedly heartrending scenes barely raise themselves to the level of a daytime TV soap opera. There wasn’t a wet eye in the house when Kersey breaks down over his wife’s corpse. It’s one a note performance in a one-note role. In stripping out the ‘SJW goes berserk’ theme, Roth and co. castrate the film.
There’s no ambiguity – when Kersey, soon dubbed ‘the Grim Reaper’ by the cops and press, shoots his first load of villains, he quite enjoys it and that’s that. Aside from a few fragmented, troubled flashbacks, he gets right into it – to the point of delivering lame Arnie-like zingers when he dispatches the baddies. Of course, the Reaper immediately becomes a folk hero, so much so that he has been turned into a meme, on ‘the social media’. We get to see some of these memes, and they are truly bloody awful. In trying to be painfully up to date, the film blunders miserably; and in tone and theme, seems as archaic and as a Roy Rogers western.
It’s a pointless film full of pointless things. One character, Kersey’s brother (Vincent D’Onofrio), is a once-promising baseball player who is shown twice practising in a batting cage. Yet he serves no purpose in the story, let alone the fact he doesn’t bash anyone’s brains in with a baseball bat. In fact, he has dinner and skedaddles before the final showdown. Which, for reasons unknown, appears to feature a Russian SWAT team with automatic rifles. Roth throws in his usual tiresome ‘look at me ma’ gore effects, and he even includes a vagrant living in a derelict parking lot scene that looks like an outtake from Public Image Limited’s Rise video. There is one good scene, featuring the ‘Ice Cream Man’, but it’s in the trailer so you don’t need to sit through the film to see it.
Watch the trailer instead. The film itself should be taken outside and shot.