The career of Bruce Willis has taken something of a nosedive in the last decade or so. Confined to straight to DVD features, with badly photoshopped covers, with the only real theatrical exception being some pretty awful Die Hard sequels. Mostly he seems happy to take paycheques for virtual cameos, playing second fiddle to store bought leads, sleep-walking his way on to the next job. He even managed to price himself out of the third instalment of The Expendables franchise, which, in hindsight, may have been an unintentional good move.
As an avid lover of the original adventure of John McClane’s Christmas Eve shenanigans and a devout believer that Unbreakable may perhaps be the greatest comic book movie (not actually based on a comic book). Two pieces of information excited me last year. The first was the return of David Dunn in the final scene of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, with the director then subsequently revealing his plans for the upcoming third film in his trilogy, Glass and the other news that Willis would also be teaming up with Eli Roth for a remake of 1974’s Death Wish.
Following much the same premise as the Charles Bronson starring original, Willis takes the lead as Paul Kersey, except this time the character is a surgeon rather than an architect.
And….. Well, that’s about the only real difference for the character’s journey. I’m quite confident that it’s in no way a spoiler to tell you that after falling victim to a home invasion, Kersey’s wife (Elizabeth Shue) is murdered and his daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) is left in a coma.
Wracked with guilt and grief and suitably letdown by the subsequent police investigation of the incident, Kersey decides to take matters into his own hands via a little firearms training courtesy of YouTube. Taking to the streets after a brief training montage, Kersey becomes a silent figure of vigilante style revenge. In these days of social media and instant camera phone uploads, Kersey quickly gains internet notoriety and the rather unimaginative moniker of The Grim Reaper. Taking out random street thugs whilst somehow managing never to be identified (he wears a hoodie, thus proving that Batman probably went way over the top with that whole cowl and cape ensemble). Through a series of convenient coincidences, he’s able to track down the gang responsible for his family’s trauma.
Whereas Michael Winner’s original movie could perhaps now be seen as a relic of a more violent era of cinema, this remake definitely feels at odds with the current political climate in the United States, but is unapologetic in its tone and message and whilst this may invoke anger in some, director Eli Roth clearly had a vision for this project, I’m just not really sure what it was.
Whereas Bronson portrayed (in the original film at least) a man torn apart by the guilt of not being able to protect his family, Willis comes across more as a man who genuinely enjoys killing and even begins to enjoy his newfound notoriety and alter ego’s fame. At one point he is shown almost cheering aloud when watching a TV news segment covering one of his acts of vigilante justice.
Roth obviously has a flare for the grotesque with his previous works including 2005’s Hostel and this is perhaps most prominent during a particularly effective scene featuring a scalpel and some brake fluid, however he mainly seems happy to have helmed the majority of the movie with the aim of shooting a by-the-numbers action flick. The action sequences are well shot and veer some distance away from being too over the top in an attempt to perhaps present a more practical and realistic approach.
Willis seems genuinely enthusiastic for a change and obviously saw this as a project that he could finally feel something of an affinity for. However, despite his efforts, the film fails to really come alive. As previously alluded, it’s pretty much a by-the-numbers remake, aside from Kersey actually locating his wife’s killers this time around and I can’t help but wonder if a better idea would have been for Elizabeth Shue to have perhaps survived with Kersey avenging his daughters death, whilst trying to hide his rage-filled mission from his wife. It must be said that the addition of the surviving daughter drew comparisons to the same level of annoyance I felt during the Liam Neeson starring Taken franchise. This is not a slight on either of the actress’s themselves, rather on the writers, who seem to be happy to have young adult women behave like twelve year old girls.
Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan both seem to be offering a rather conflicted view of gun ownership in the States. Whereas the film is happy to poke fun at how easy it is to legally obtain firearms in America, with Willis being told as much by a suitably buxom gun store employee, it then proceeds to present gun-toting vigilante action as a viable solution to violent street crime. On the subject of the writing, the film is sorely missing out on the bad guy front. Mostly consisting of random stereotypes who wouldn’t even be deemed interesting enough to feature in a video-game. The main villain comes across as a rather damp squib, is given little screen time and the film’s finale suffers considerably as a result.
All being said, it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity, just above the average DVD fodder that has formed the main body of Willis’ recent work, which is a real shame. Fingers crossed we’ll finally get to see a return to form in the upcoming Unbreakable/Split sequel, because it seems that for the time being at least, Bruce Willis genuinely wants to try and be a movie star once again.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 5/10
Death Wish is on general release in the U.S. now and is released in the U.K. April 6th.