Death Wish (2018)
I have been reviewing movies for over a decade and a dedicated cinephile for about forty years before that. In all that time a considerable number of those films have naturally been classified as remakes, or in the modern parlance, the reboot. It is nice to believe that the movie studios dedicated to the production of the finest quality entertainment the artform can create. Undoubtedly, that is one of many motivating factors but, realistically, the industry is driven by the executives clad in designer suits that oversee the purse strings. With literally billions of dollars profit at stake and initial investments ranging into the nine figures, their pronouncements dictate what produced and which distribution tier selected. The advantage of a remake is the preexisting familiarity with the story and characters. Among the latest to hit the cineplex and progress to home theater formats is the 1974 altar of violence, vengeance and a self-contained sense of justice, vigilantism, ‘Death Wish.’ The original transcended the classic cult stage soaring on towards a significant contributor to the popular zeitgeist. The theme of the story was simple, based on emotions and physiological motivations that everyone can readily identify. The deeply ingrained drive to protect your family resides in the deepest portion of our primitive lizard brain. When protection fails, a slightly more developed region assumes control is collapsing the personal raison d'etre to a singularity of revenge. Fortunately, the more developed aspects of the personality, frequently referred to as the superego, compel us to conform to the laws and customs of society. Even in the most refined and law-abiding citizens, those primitive urgings exist below the surface receiving a vicarious thrill over watching the fulfillment of those dark thoughts through the safety of film. We cannot stalk in the cover of night extracting revenge and dealing justice in the most viscerally satisfying ways possible. What a civilized person cannot do, the character portrayed by Charles Bronson executed with impunity. This new incarnation of the story the mantle is passed to veteran action hero, Bruce Willis. Regrettably, a substantial amount of the impact was diluted by numerous factors.
Although it is preferred to evaluate a movie on its own merits, it is only natural to concede that a remake intrinsically invites comparisons. Maintaining the requisite connection to the original movie, the name of the protagonist, Paul Kersey, remains the same but rather than being a successful architect, Bruce Willis portrays him as a respected trauma surgeon. The alteration does cleverly address a substantial plot hole found in the original. Inevitably. Paul is bound to be wounded during his nocturnal form of anger management. A person trained in tee-squares, blueprints and scale models is ill-equipped to ameliorate the damage. At least a trauma surgeon has the training, experience and access to the equipment necessary to remain alive and continue his mission. It is true that the observed rapidity in healing follows the unrealistic tenants of ‘grindhouse medicine’, this need for suspension of disbelief is warranted. In one scene Paul closes a significant gash on his shoulder with medical grade super glue and several self-applied surgical staples. Admittedly, closer to reality that purloining gaze, tape and bandages from a convent pharmacy. The downside of this concern to a modicum of details was undone but a loss of a foundation of humanity. There is an interesting corollary to the deleterious alterations. Insight is provided regarding the difference in public attitudes towards several fundamental themes and sociopolitical issues. Much to the detriment of the overall impact as entertainment.
Once again, the movie is set in Chicago where Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) is enjoying his life. At work he is constantly surrounded by the aftermath of violence piecing his patients together after tragedy. All of that is forgotten at home with his wife, Lucy (Elisabeth Shue), and their college-bound daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone). The idyllic picture of happiness is destroyed one night when a home invasion goes horribly wrong. Three masked men break into the Kersey home ostensibly to rob the family but after one crook ties up Lucy another becomes increasingly asexually invasive with Jordan. He demands his partners wait while he rapes the young woman she tries to flee resulting in Lucy’s death and Jordan left in a coma. Paul is grief struck, with his brother, Frank (Vincent D'Onofrio), doing his best to help. The case is assigned to detective Kevin Raines (Dean Norris) and his partner Detective Leonore Jackson (Kimberly Elise). Paul becomes upset with the continued lack of progress. Time continues to pass until happenstance intervenes. While working on a gang member after a shooting a gun falls out of the patient’s clothing. Paul kicks it to the side and later retrieves the weapon. Applying himself through diligent practice and online tutorials Paul achieves proficiency in the use and maintenance of the weapon. Taking to carrying it the gun remains unused until Paul witnesses a brutal carjacking. Pulling out the gun he succeeds in thwarting the crime. With the overwhelming prevalence of smartphones, it is natural that a video is recorded, posted and goes viral. Paul clad in a hoody, Is given the nom de guerre of the ‘Grim Reaper’. The look achieved by the wardrobe department appears to have found some concept art from Willis’ previous movie, ‘Unbreakable’ sporting the concealing hoody lurking in the shadows. That franchise is on the verge of revival, this is convenient reminder for the audience.
The escalation of violence does reflect the disintegration of Paul’s moral compass as he hunts down the men responsible for the destruction of his family and annulation of any hope for happiness. The main plot is motivated by a plot contrivance which does nothing to reinforce the primary theme as well as redirecting the underlying intentions of the message. The original concept at the foundation of the ‘Death Wish’ franchise was to explore the deep-seated and universally ingrained need to extract revenge on any doing harm to their family. In the original, Paul becomes so blinded by grief, separated from any physiological oversight or constraints that he lashes out at low level thugs working up to targets of greater importance. This course of action directs the narrative to universal base instincts that everyone understands on an intimate level. In this movie Paul stumbles into a path of a focused and highly personalized vendetta. One of the criminals involved with the breakup winds up in the hospital sorely injured. Paul is in attendance and applies the defibrillator to correct an erratic cardiac rhythm. Staring down at the one responsible for his wife’s murder and the dire condition of his only child Paul reacts. Although the film falls short of achieving a x=completely satisfactory level of satisfying entertainment, the depiction of the moment Paul submits to that primitive need to exact revenge was one of the smarts scenes in the movie. Despite needing to kill the man lying before him, Paul retained sufficient presence of mind to avoid discarding his own life and profession to accomplish it. Paul simple shocks his patient a second time, effectively and unsuspiciously terminating the criminal’s life. I respect this directorial decision, it is considerably more believable than the typical ‘flying into an uncharacteristic and unrealistic rage. As a trauma surgeon Paul is accustomed to remaining in control during extremely stressful and unpredictable circumstances. He would not jeopardize everything we worked for throughout his life over this punk, especially, when he can end him with a push of a button, an action he routinely performed.
The 1974 variation of the story remained true to one of my favorite themes, exploring a reasonable man pushed by circumstances beyond his control to an unreasonable response. That original film ranked in the Pantheon of this genre among its greats, ‘Falling’ and ‘Straw Dogs (1971)’. The over-dependence forced the dilution of the core motivation in the remake on the unrelenting quest for personal justice, the approach untaken here collapsed the impact of a man’s tragedy to a personal microcosm. That original story opened to a consideration of grand proportions. The Bronson interpterion brought the character to raging against the machine. His mission statement is encompassing the systemic problem of rampant crime with no consequences. The movie here had untapped potential left to spiral into mediocrity.