Over the years, audiences have been treated to different variations of the vigilante film. In the genre, an individual is wronged and seeks justice on the streets. In recent years, Sally Field sought justice in an Eye for an Eye (1996), Jodie Foster fought back in The Brave One (2007) and Denzel Washington delivered revenge in The Equalizer (2014).
One of the genre’s most famous films though is the 1974 thriller Death Wish starring Charles Bronson (which spawned several sequels). Now, four decades later, director Eli Roth has brought that same story back to the big screen in Death Wish, a remake starring Bruce Willis.
In the new feature, Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) is an esteemed doctor, who lives with his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) and their college-bound daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) in Chicago. The family seems happy but then tragedy strikes. While he’s away, Lucy and Jordan are brutally attacked.
The doctor gives the police some time to solve the crime but grows frustrated when he realizes his case is one of the dozens that Detective Kevin Raines (Dean Norris) is trying to solve.
Paul’s father-in-law Ben (Les Cariou), who ironically plays a former New York City police commissioner on the CBS drama Blue Bloods, doesn’t believe in traditional law and order. “People rely on the police to keep them safe,” he says. “That’s the problem.” So Paul picks up a weapon and starts fighting back against the criminals in his community.
The concept of the story isn’t fresh but the story’s greatest weakness is that it doesn’t offer anything new to the well-known genre.
As opposed to The Brave One or The Equalizer, which stood out despite some of their familiar plot developments, this Bruce Willis thriller never really makes its own unique impression.
Director Eli Roth is well-known for some of his graphic horror films but here, he seems satisfied remaining in the traditional boundaries of the genre. Some of the violence here — such as a scene at a mechanic’s workplace — is more brutal than expected but outside of that, he doesn’t seem to bring his own unique spin to this tale. The screenplay by Joe Carnahan just offers the traditional plot developments expected in a movie like this.
Early on, it feels like the movie might offer something distinct and original. With Bruce Willis as the lead and the city of Chicago as the arena, this thriller could’ve really had something to say about the violence in that community and how people differ on solutions to keep the neighborhoods safe.
There are momentary discussions here where radio personalities discuss whether or not to support the new street vigilante but those debates only scratch the surface. There’s nothing deeper at stake. No real insight given to the concept of a man tired of the violence in Chicago and feeling the need to change that.
Death Wish will undeniably be criticized for its violence and the feature’s empathy towards the main character. Some might say that the film is unsettling because the film’s protagonist crosses the line and kills unarmed (though undeniably violent) individuals.
The film’s main issue isn’t the main character though. It’s the fact that the movie never really delves deep enough to offer anything of substance. There’s an interesting supporting cast here featuring Vincent D'Onofrio as Paul’s brother and Kimberly Elise as Raines’ partner but just when you think the movie is going to take an interesting turn, it settles back into complacency.
Death Wish is superficially interested in its characters and the debate of vigilante justice versus the justice system but it’s never willing to explore either in any depth.
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