Death Wish (2018)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Death Wish</strong> (2018)

(On Cable TV, December 2018) Ho boy, do I have mixed feelings about this Death Wish remake. For one thing, I’ve been watching a lot of urban-decay movies of the early 1970s lately, including the original Charles Bronson film. For another, well, I’m Canadian—my nearest metropolitan area is in the midst of an unprecedented murder wave and yet our yearly total barely exceeds what the city of Chicago alone experiences over two weeks (although Chicago’s own wave of violence seems to be receding after a particularly bad 2016). Seeing Death Wish isn’t just like seeing a very American nightmare given form, but one that seems to be coming back from the past. You already know the story, or at least can grasp it in a few words: A peaceful man turns vigilante after a brutal attack leaves his wife dead and his daughter in a coma. The rest is pure predictable plot mechanics to complete the cycle of revenge, making sure our hero develops the skills, evades the cops, tracks down the responsible parties and executes them in a way that leaves him in the clear. The first step in such a by-the-number reactionary thriller is to clearly establish that its world is a far more dangerous place than ours—and the film does have to lie quite a bit in order to get there, reaching for racial stereotypes and vilifying its targets. Poachers attack a farm just to make a convenient point, statistics are grossly inflated, and a Greek chorus of radio and social media voices is there to half-heartedly make and dismiss objections. Meanwhile, Bruce Willis broods his way through a role very much in-line with much of his indifferent 21st-century screen persona. Director Eli Roth may want to make a social statement (although I doubt it—his horror-movie instincts come up whenever there’s even a faint chance to put gratuitous gore on-screen) but Death Wish is, far more than its predecessor, an NRA-approved exploitation picture designed to make fearful people feel comfortable in their twisted version of the world. It would be a pretty reprehensible picture if it wasn’t for one thing: It’s actually executed decently. Roth has the budget to go for clean impressive cinematography, feature good actors even in thankless roles (Dean Norris once more takes on a familiar persona, but he’s sufficiently good at it that emerges intact from the deplorable results), and flex his directorial skills honed on much nastier pictures. He doesn’t stray that far from his roots—plot-wise the film hinges on convenient coincidences and at least one ridiculous Rube-Goldberg contrivance. But Death Wish, for all of its considerable problems, does actually work at what it intends to be: a gun-powered revenge fantasy, slickly made and updated to the current era.

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