Movie Review: Death Wish

Revenge crime drama, Death Wish, made Charles Bronson the ugly handsome tough guy you don’t mess with in 1970… raw, violent and relentless, it set in motion its own subgenre. This was revived with Taken as Liam Neeson stepped into the type and has resulted in a number of 60-something actors trying their hand at vigilante justice thrillers with limited success.

Bruce Willis revived the Die Hard franchise quite convincingly and based on his body count, seemed like the perfect candidate to headline the Death Wish remake almost 50 years later. While Bruce Willis makes a lot of sense as the star of the reboot on paper, he’s not an ideal candidate, having to subdue his trademark mix of charm and cheek. Die Hard had enough comic moments to make it a tongue-in-cheek shoot ’em up and that just doesn’t work for the raw grit and intensity of Death Wish. He’s supported by many familiar faces including Vincent D’Onofrio and Elisabeth Shue.

The reboot re-positions Willis as a trauma surgeon… a bit of a stretch for the typically middlebrow . While this creates a curious tension with him playing a redeeming god at the hospital and a merciless god on the streets, it’s enough of a refresh to make this Death Wish different from the original. It still follows the same basic story line of a man avenging the men who attacked his family during a home invasion through bloodthirsty acts of vigilantism.

 “I killed a man with these hands…” 

While a welcome injection of novelty, it also suffers for the medical overlay, coming across as a clinical, commercial and safe reinterpretation. It’s good that doc has access to all sorts of medical gear to keep him off the grid, but this actually muddies the self-made Judge Dredd alter-ego. The original Death Wish was more powerful for giving Bronson nothing to lose and in the reboot, Willis comes across as irresponsible and reckless instead of single-minded and relentless due to some critical plot revisions.

Written by action-man Joe Carnahan, whose A-Team movie was reasonable at best, it has enough flair to get one through some fairly stodgy drama. Eli Roth, known for his torture thrillers, drives home some of the confrontational scenes and adds a bit of extra blood splatter to up the violence from the director’s chair. As violent as things become, it never feels like Willis is under any real threat… perhaps an inconvenient overlap from his Die Hard days. As such, the film becomes a case of going through the motions with dopamine levels stunted by a sense of the inevitable.

The gun debate makes it topical for its satirical-serious reflections, cleverly covering for both sides, but Death Wish is best when it focuses on dark retribution and street justice. There are some cleverly staged sequences, especially the home invasion, but it generally seems a bit lazy, not thinking things through long enough and taking shortcuts. While ultra-violent at times, it lacks the same raw intensity and grit of the original, softened for commercial appeal. You leave the cinema wondering if the red herrings were there on purpose or not, which is probably why Death Wish seems a bit familiar and lack-lustre.

The bottom line: Passable

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