Film Review: Bruce Willis in ‘Death Wish’
In “Death Wish,” Eli Roth’s blunt-witted, pop-reactionary, crudely watchable and reprehensible remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson thriller, Bruce Willis, as a Chicago surgeon-turned-vigilante, walks up to a drug dealer who he’s learned was guilty of wounding and terrorizing a young boy. The dealer, known as the Ice Cream Man, is slumped in his chair, surrounded by thug bodyguards. He barely has enough time to take out his gun and say who the f— are you before Willis announces, “I’m your last customer,” and pumps half a dozen bullets into him. No muss, no fuss.
The scene, by all rights, ought to be a nasty bit of business: a middle-aged white avenger in a hoodie, popping out of nowhere to blow a black drug dealer away. But that “last customer” line plays like an old Schwarzenegger kiss-off, and the lawless killing is followed by equal-time commentary from black and white talk-radio hosts — the film’s explicit attempt to defuse any racist overtones.
More than that, the reality of a glib execution like this one is that audiences have been consuming overripe revenge thrillers for 45 years now, and they no longer take them all that seriously. Blowing someone away with unsmiling moral cool is now an act of violent comedy. (That’s certainly how the multi-racial audience reacted at the preview showing of “Death Wish” I attended; they hooted and hollered with glee.)
“Death Wish,” make no mistake, is a movie that has its heart in the wrong place. It’s an advertisement for gun fetishism, for taking the law into your own hands, for homicide as justice, for thinking of assault weapons as the world’s coolest toys. Given that the eternal debate about gun control has now been heightened, post-Parkland massacre, to a new state of urgency, the film, depending on your point of view, is either horribly timed or spectacularly well-timed. An N.R.A. cultist might see the new “Death Wish” and think, “Hollywood finally made one for our side.”
Except that in the ’70s, revenge thrillers — “Death Wish,” “Walking Tall,” “Billy Jack” — had a gritty resonance that helped sway the body politic. Even when they were scurrilous and badly made (which was more or less always), they spoke to the pendulum swings of a nation that had absorbed the counterculture but had yet to shake off the disgruntled passions of the silent majority.
In today’s America, where revenge in pop culture has become the air we breathe, it’s doubtful that the new “Death Wish,” even if it’s a modest hit, will be remembered or talked about in a few weeks. It’s preaching to the choir — but more than that, it’s a strictly-for-kicks “ideological” thriller, with the structure of a slasher film. Each time Willis dispenses another victim-who-deserves-what’s-coming-to-him, the mayhem gets kicked up another bloody, brutal notch. “Death Wish” is designed to ring right-wing alarm bells, but mostly it’s designed to inspire nihilist chuckles at seeing bad-guy scum get killed real good. The truth is that a movie like this one doesn’t matter anymore (the way the Charles Bronson “Death Wish,” though scuzzy and rather listless pulp, did), because even its rabble-rousing feels market-tested. There’s plenty of blood up on screen, but not much fever to the bloodlust.
The original “Death Wish” was Hollywood’s attempt to cash in on what had started, with “Billy Jack” and “Walking Tall,” as an outlaw indie-film explosion: violent, low-budget demigod action pulp made outside the industry, with that very fact seen as a measure of its conviction. (Tom Laughlin was Billy Jack.) But “Death Wish,” more than those other movies, foreshadowed the moment we’re in now, since it was so much about the mythological trashing of the rule of law.
Paul Kersey, the mild-mannered New York architect played by Bronson, responds to the brutal murder of his wife — and the rape of his daughter — by realizing that he can’t get justice through the system; he has to do it himself. Compared to the action heroes that followed, from Sly and Arnold to Matt Damon in the “Bourne” films, Bronson, in “Death Wish,” now seems weirdly sedentary — he faces off against muggers and fires his pistol like a man playing video games. Even when he’s on the streets, he seems like an armchair vigilante. But you hear an echo of what he represents each time a politician pushes a stand-your-ground law, or President Trump trashes the justice system, or a member of the N.R.A faithful declares that guns are what you need to protect yourself from the government. They’re saying: Let’s do it like Bronson did.