By Liam Lacey
The premise, you may recall, involves a mild-mannered professional, whose liberal fantasies are shattered when robbers kill his wife and leave his daughter in a coma. He then goes on a vigilante killing spree, restoring his natural sense of primal maleness.
In calmer times, the Death Wish remake, would be a fast-disappearing curiosity. Today - when every action movie is judged as a referendum on Donald Trump, white male rage, gender and racism - the revised Death Wish is sucking up media attention as a talking point. Expect it to be reviled by progressives as a vile Trumpian fantasy or hailed by the right (should that be "heiled"?) as a thumb-in-the-eye to political correctness.
Some people are clearly taking the bait. A video has been making the rounds of a 2015 Donald Trump speech, praising the first Death Wish in the wake of an Oregon school shooting. The new movie effectively endorses the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, the type of gun used in mass killings from Sandy Hook to Parkland, Florida. And the official MGM trailer for the film really does play like a National Rifle Association commercial (“The U.S. is home to 125 million families. One in four will become victims of a crime. What if your family was next?”).
On the contrary side, the film is being distributed internationally by arthouse darlings Annapurna Productions (Her, The Master, American Hustle), an indication that it's intended, on some level, as a director's film. It seems worth considering that Eli Roth, best known for the Hostel series, has some visual style and something to say about privilege and violence.
The early set-up scenes are promising; The film introduces Dr. Kersey, on a gore-spattered day at the ER, tending to a black policeman as he dies of a gunshot wound. He then moves to the next room to patch up the man's killer.
The next morning at his suburban McMansion, over breakfast with his pretty blond wife (Elisabeth Shue), he gets the happy news that his lovely daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone) has been accepted into college. True, law officers are bleeding out on hospital gurneys to keep the streets safe, but his life is good. At his daughter's soccer game, the doctor meekly backs down from a confrontation from an angry dad.
The first bad-guy that Dr. Kersey encounters is a brown-skinned Hispanic parking valet named Miguel. The valet somehow intuits that, since the doctor wears an expensive watch, he must have a home safe full of goodies, and soon gleans the address from the car's GPS. From there, the movie maintains a careful balance of good and bad characters among its black, white and brown characters. It does, however, hold a consistently dim view of men who wear facial stubble and ponytails.
The home invasion sequence, at night, with mother and daughter alone in the house, is suspenseful and disturbing without exploitative excess. In the aftermath of the crime, with his wife dead and daughter in a coma, the traumatized doctor is advised by the cops and his shrink (Canadian actress Wendy Crewson), to surrender to the "process" of recovery.
The movie, partly shot in Montreal, includes a cameo from Stephen McHattie as a police chief, and Len Cariou, as Dr. Kersey's father-in-law, a Dick Cheney type who blasts at deer poachers and makes a speech about a man's duty to protect his family. A primitive light goes on in Dr. Kersey's sleep-deprived traumatized brain: Screw process, start shooting.
Death Wish is never less than obvious but it’s not devoid of wit. The first thing Dr. Kersey reads to his daughter in a coma is an economic textbook by Milton Freedman, hero of free-market Libertarians. The movie mocks the absurd ease of acquiring military weapons, with a sexy salesgirl who appeals to men with virility issues.
Later, when Dr. Kersey starts practicing his vigilante justice, the media lines up to celebrate the "guardian angel" (the white radio station) or cautiously questioning vigilante justice (the black radio station) as it is doled out by an old white dude in a hoodie. It's no coincidence that the chief detective on the case is played by Dean Norris, who played the DEA cop in the TV series, Breaking Bad, the socially acceptable version of the middle-aged white guy avenger.
Willis, sad to say, just isn't that much badass fun as Walt White. Keeping his smirk and yippee-kay-yay under wraps, he spends most of the movie looking purse-lipped and serious, as if trying to remember if he left a sponge in his last patient. His character literally doesn't seem comfortable in his skin. Twice when Dr. Kersey speaks to a person of colour, he establishes his good will by introducing the subject of basketball.
The most interesting thing in Death Wish is that the protagonist is a doctor. In Brian Garfield's original novel, the hero was a chartered accountant. In the 1974 revenge movie, an architect. Willis' character is a Chicago emergency room surgeon specializing in gunshot wounds. He's a new version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, pulling bullets out of people by day and putting them into them by night.
Yet, the biggest impediment to an emotional connection is the story's dependence on guns. Too often, Dr. Kersey, face hidden in a protective hoodie (emblematic of Black Lives Matter), seems like a video-game avatar, blasting away from behind cars and other forms of onset furniture.
Guns, for all their noise and destructive power, are a wussy, arm's-length way to exact vengeance. Roth, a director whose films inspired the "torture porn" label, knows that. His most effective scene in Death Wish is when the doctor begins carving into the thigh of mechanic trapped under a car, poking at the sciatic nerve, in an effort to elicit information. I couldn't help thinking how much deeper David Cronenberg could have plunged into the theme of a blood debt.
One bizarre element in the film is the character of Dr. Kersey's "street-wise" brother, Frank (Vincent D'Onofrio), who puts the touch on his brother for a couple of grand at the movie’s start, and is apparently involved in something messy. But it goes nowhere.
As the movie rolls on, it appears that Frank's alarm-ringing twitchiness and the creepy way he looks at his niece are just how D'Onofrio chooses to act. He feels like a phantom limb from some severed subplot, a clumsy loose end in Joe Carnahan's otherwise serviceable script.
Death Wish. Directed by Eli Roth. Written by Joe Carnahan. Starring: Bruce Willis, Elizabeth Shue, Camilla Morrone, Dean Norris and Vincent D'Onofrio. Death Wish shows at Scotiabank Theatre, Silvercity Yorkdale.