Tuesday 13 March 2018

Death Wish (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Surgeon Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) has his comfortable life turned upside-down after a home invasion leaves his wife (Elizabeth Shue) dead and his daughter (Camila Morrone) in a coma. With the police being ineffectual in finding the criminals responsible for the break-in, and Paul knowing that crime is a consistent problem in his neighbourhood, he decides to take the law into his hands and hunt them down himself.

This is probably the best Bruce Willis has been in a very long time, especially where more action-oriented cinema is concerned. While it is a bit tough initially to buy him as Dr. Bruce Willis, his interactions with his family combined with how he handles the more violent moments is quite good. It feels like he’s gotten back to his early Die Hard days, where he’s not playing a superhuman killing machine but an ordinary guy put into a dire situation; after the mess of A Good Day To Die Hard, this is a welcome surprise. D’Onofrio likewise is quite good as Willis’ brother, serving as one of the few real voices of reason in this story while also strengthening the film’s emotional core concerning the Kersey family.
Shue as Paul’s wife does decently in her main scene, and while Morrone falls a little too easily into the Women In Refrigerators trope (well, more so than Shue at least), her chemistry with Shue and Willis holds up. Knapp, Blevins and Kesy do adequately as the criminal instigators that get the plot rolling, but outside of their places within the plot, they don’t end up standing out that much. Oh, and Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise as the detectives in charge of the investigation are comically inept, to the point where not even their own performances can salvage the rather… questionable reason they exist in this story to begin with.

Back when I reviewed director Eli Roth’s previous feature Knock Knock, I showed some willingness to give this film a chance because it would involve Roth working on a script that isn’t his own. Instead, we have Joe Carnahan, who brought us The Grey and the 2010 A-Team movie, with an uncredited rewrite from duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the guys who gave us Big Eyes, Goosebumps and Man On The Moon. This is a pretty solid foundation for a story, and considering this is a remake of a pretty legendary piece of revenge cinema, credit where it’s due in that some attempt was made to modernise the story. Building on modern crime rate statistics and a very real sentiment that the U.S. police are too ineffectual to handle those numbers, it makes the story feel like it has some reason why it is being told now.
Sure, this film’s initial release proved rather unfortunate in its timing, but as I’ve said in the past, I doubt there would ever be a situation where a story like this would ever not be badly timed. Same goes for the change in profession for our lead from the original (architect) to this remake (doctor), pushing him into a situation where he has no choice but to bear witness to how much death is happening around him. There’s also some good showing of how contemporary news discourse is handled in the age of social media, showing “The Grim Reaper” as not only something of a folk hero for his actions but also someone who is part of a viral video and even a collection of memes. Considering what I’m about to get into, this shows a surprising amount of self-awareness.

This is not a consistent thing, however. In fact, this film’s biggest fault is that it is largely lacking in real-world context behind the actions that we’re seeing. It’s brought careening into the modern-day through the inclusion of Internet activity and even discussions courtesy of internet DJs like Sway Calloway, but it is significantly behind as far as present-day attitudes towards this kind of story. The original Death Wish is not only a rather important piece of cinema in the realms of action-thrillers, but it also one that has been dissected and re-examined a fair bit since its original release. Hell, when it came time for another of Brian Garfield’s novels to be adapted with the 2007 version of Death Sentence, that film took on-board how much this revenge power fantasy has become somewhat a thing of the past. As much as there is a place for power fantasies in our fiction, there is also a need to admit that such things are indeed fantasies.

With how this film presents itself, that is not the tone we get. Instead, he is made out rather unambiguously as the good guy in this scenario. Paul, the guy who tortures a man with a method that he fully admits to being “the most painful experience a person can go through without suffering cardiac arrest” and then drops a car on his head, is the Good Guy With A Gun. His actions are rarely questioned, save for a few token showings of concern, but instead framed as him doing the right thing. His community improves as a result of his actions, his family stays protected, and even with all the illegal groundwork he did, he never gets called up on it. Ever. Because the police in this universe are just that ineffectual, to the point of openly admitting holes in Paul’s alibi… and then just letting him go anyway.

And yet somehow, we haven’t even gotten to the bad part yet. Eli Roth himself would likely object to my statements so far, since he explicitly wanted to make a film focusing on family, wanting the audience to decide for themselves whether these actions are justified. Noble intentions, considering the political climate of today. However, having seen this man’s previous attempts to illustrate a ‘point’, from the flailing highlighting of Ugly American tendencies with the Hostel films to the excruciating sexual politics of Knock Knock, the man is not equipped for social commentary. Especially when, despite his own words, this is quite clearly meant to be appealing to a subset of the audience. When Paul goes to a gun store for the first time, we are treated to a rather attractive female clerk who goes into rather fetishistic detail about the guns being sold, describing them in much the same way that a lecherous man would describe his genitals. Knowing Eli Roth’s main demographic of horny teenagers, given the prevalence of breasts, blood and booze that appears in the majority of his work, this reads like it’s reaching for the same target. Cue the woman explaining the paperwork involved in buying a gun, noting that there is a gun safety test that, quote “no one ever fails”, which ends up being rather pointless as Paul just ends up securing an illegal firearm anyway. Even knowing how dead-easy it is to get one through the proper channels. But remember: He’s the good guy.

So, let’s condense everything we have here. We have a self-made vigilante taking out bloody justice on criminals, one who never gets called up on his own criminal activities, and who is presented his options in a way that makes out taking the law into his own hands to be a rather attractive prospect (somewhat literally, given the eye candy at the gun store). On top of that, we are also shown a version of the U.S. police that is so blatantly unable to stop much of anything that getting the job done yourself is the only real viable option. This is a film that not only came out in the middle of a series of mass shootings in the U.S., but also a time when the idea of “taking the law into your own hands” is both prevalent and quite dangerous. Revenge thrillers have managed to survive and thrive, even in these conditions, but not without a considerable amount of clarity as far as the morality of the “hero”.
This is the same kind of mentality, the one revolving around a hyper-masculine shooter who serves as his own lawmaker, that led to Revisionist Westerns, where even creatives like Clint Eastwood were taking a step back and looking at how much these stories don’t fit in the modern climate. This film may do its best to ground itself in reality, but in two very contrasting ways, it fails. It’s too grounded in reality for the prospect of this being a relatively harmless power fantasy to be viable, and yet it’s too oblivious of real-world context and rules to work as a gritty bit of realism. All we’re left with is a film that seems to promote vigilante justice, in a time where not only have we spent the last three decades debunking that very idea, but also at a time where the mob is most willing to overrule the laws that govern them. This is insanely troubling.

All in all… I actually miss Eli Roth’s writing. At least then, it’d be so rock-stupid that I would be unable to take it so seriously. Here, though, we have all the ugliness of Roth’s usual storytelling but without any form of forethought about how morally dubious the details are. The acting is admittedly very good, with Willis showing a welcome return to everyman action lead form, but between the film’s universe constantly giving his character the benefit of the doubt, the unhinged brutality on display that the audience is never really given a reason to question, and the unashamedly appealing way both of those aspects are presented, I cannot justify recommending this. I cannot abide by a film that seeks to further stir the pot of political and cultural unrest, glorifying actions that have already done enough damage both past and present. And again, calling this a power fantasy doesn’t cut it; not when the film makes this kind of effort to ground itself in present-day reality, just without any of the moralistic reshuffling we’ve done in the interim between the original film and this remake. It also takes itself a little too seriously to have fun with in that same way.

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