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Death Wish movie review: Hopefully a cautionary tale

Bruce Willis is back in action.

When it went into development, I was worried about what Death Wish would be in 2017. The Charles Bronson films came out of a time when people feared the faceless criminal and felt the police couldn’t help them.

Today we have mass shootings by disgruntled men and George Zimmerman standing his ground, so a vigilante story is even more complicated than it already is in principle. I didn’t think Eli Roth would do Death Wish just to make a Bruce Willis shoot ‘em up, and I was right.

However I can appreciate a good remake of Death Wish, I am now supporting the Parkland students, planning to march with them and pressuring companies to boycott the NRA. As such I would not begrudge anyone who doesn’t want to celebrate vigilante violence right now.

Bruce Willis and Ronnie Gene Blevins in the remake of Death Wish

I view it in the context of Willis’s action career, like maybe he’s reflecting on the everyman action genre, but I wouldn’t ask anyone else to analyze that and maybe I’m reaching.

Death Wish is still the story of Paul Kersey (Willis), now a Chicago ER doctor. His wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) is killed in a home invasion and his daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) put into a coma.

The Kerseys in happier times

The robbery preys upon our modern vulnerabilities as it involves the criminals preying on publicly available information we take for granted. It also handles the most troubling aspect of the original crime respectfully.

The attackers in the 1974 movie are rapists too. Here, the threat of sexual violence is still there, as it always is for women in the world, but Roth doesn’t exploit it. The crime is already bad enough.

The film already addresses the underlying violence in the world before Paul goes vigilante. Jordan plays soccer and, as soccer parents may know, the world of teen sports if full of violent spectators.

Uncle Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis)

There’s abuse in Paul’s childhood. Uncle Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio) suggests Jordan take self-defense classes before college, and it’s casual because that’s just reality for women. There will be predatory men at college and everywhere they go.

It would be nice if there were a way she could have some agency in the story but I guess that shipped sailed when they decided to remake Death Wish. They could’ve made her a son. That would be a different dynamic but then it would take another role away from a woman.

Elisabeth Shue as Lucy Kersey

Death Wish is economical in dealing with the Kersey family tragedy while still honoring the emotion of it. We’re here for the revenge, but we don’t want to treat the death and terrorizing of a family as a maguffin. The script by Joe Carnahan keeps returning to the emotional truth.

There’s a lot of frustration at law enforcement in the world and Paul Kersey takes the time to give it a chance. Meeting with Det. Rance (Dean Norris), Paul learns how overwhelming a single detective’s case load is. Rance rules out very reasonable ideas of offering a reward and hiring a PI to help. It really feels like we are on our own.

Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) looks for clues.

Not that just anyone could be Paul Kersey. You kind of do have to be a genius surgeon with resources, and Death Wish is responsible enough to dissuade any copycats.

At least, I took it as a sign I do not ever want to pick up a gun and go vigilante. I hope that’s what everybody else gets too. Paul is lucky he escaped his first attempt to intervene with only a gut punch.

He also self-trains using all of the resources of the information age, which is an interesting commentary on exactly what is being shared and for what intentions.

Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) in mourning

Roth uses the widescreen frame to establish the geography of a scene. It’s easy to say it’s a tactic from horror movies but it should just be a tactic for all films. Films should always show the audience where danger is and keep us in suspense of that danger colliding with our heroes.

A shadow behind the Kerseys’ front door is a terrifying prelude to the terrible crime. The robbery is still loaded with suspenseful beats, even though we know what has to happen for this story to unfold.

Bruce Willis in Death Wish

The violence in Death Wish is painful. There is discussion of the politics of his action. It’s a tad removed from Paul himself, as it would be. He’s not going on talk shows defending himself, but the world reacts to every news report and YouTube video.

My biggest conflict with revenge movies is that nothing can undo the crime. Nothing can bring Lucy back or cure Jordan of the inevitable PTSD. Death Wish does have a relatively happy ending but I don’t think it makes light of the tragedy.

Lucy isn’t coming back. Jordan still has to go to college so the remaining family has to cope with the new normal. It is hopeful that healing can occur after violence.

I hope the takeaway is to focus on healing, not violence, and I’m happy to leave the violence in fictional movies. In real life, we’re taking peaceful action.

Death Wish is in theaters March 2.


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