Sunday, 11 March 2018

I Wish I Had a Death Sentence than Watch Death Wish (2018)

When his family’s home is robbed, surgeon Dr. Paul Kersey’s wife is murdered, and his daughter put in a coma. He (Bruce Willis) becomes frustrated by the police’s lack of progress in catching the people responsible, and coupled with his concerns of the alarming crime rate around him, and conversing with others about how inadequate the law is, one of whom is his father-in-law, he decides to start taking the law into his own hands. He takes a gun from a shot gang member brought into the hospital where he works, and wearing a hoodie, he goes out at night hunting the dregs of society. After his first killings of a group of hoodlums, he earns the nickname “The Grim Reaper”, when he is filmed on a smartphone by a witness, and the footage is uploaded to the internet. Then by chance, one of the men that had a part in the robbery on his house is brought into the ICU, wearing one of the watches that were taken. Using their phone, he gets the information he needs to help him track down the scumbags. More carnage follows.

One of the taglines for Eli Roth’s 2018 remake of ‘Death Wish’ asks the question - “How Far Would You Go to Protect Your Family?”… When your wife is already dead, and your daughter is in a coma. Paramount’s marketing department sure did not think this one through. This is pedestrian filmmaking, as it does not attempt to do anything new at all. It is so prosaic that it does not even look and feel as if Roth made it, as it does not feature any of his signature trademarks, other than the gore in the equally unimaginative action and kill set-pieces, which is hardly a unique claim. Any hack director for rent could have helmed this, as this genre filmmaker is clearly on autopilot here, slumming it for a big payday.

Joe Carnahan’s screenplay was deemed hot property in Hollywood, but I fail to see how a by-the-numbers action revenge yarn can be considered so good. There is no nuance here, as everything is about as subtle as a brick in the teeth, with zero character development. Our protagonist is not shown to be sick, suffering with the consequences of his vengeful violent actions, but takes to his vigilante work like a duck to water, and immediately takes much glee in it. Carnahan inserts hackneyed social commentary on Kersey’s one-man fight on crime, with segments featuring media commentators and the public discussing how they feel of this “Grim Reaper” dishing out his own brand of justice, with of course, opposing opinions. We have seen this all before a gazillion times, and it offers no substance to the story, other than bringing up to date the technological means for their voices to be heard with the use of social media platforms, including the always oh so controversial use of internet memes.

While a well shot, edited, and briskly paced affair, there is nothing to enjoy within the filmic world of these generic proceedings. The action and kill sequences are dull and badly staged, and there is no memorable villains for us to root for Paul Kersey to dispatch. Therefore, we do not even get what could have been considered mindless popcorn stylized violence for sheer entertainment's sake. His daughter is not raped here like in the original 1974 film, and I feel the filmmakers or/and the studio were playing it safe for a watered down version, in order to widen the audience for more box-office potential (it is actually rated 15 in the UK). Way back in 2003, when Eli Roth was promoting ‘Cabin Fever’, I did an e-mail interview with him for a student rag I was writing for at Greenwich University in London. When I asked what he thought of the horror films coming out at the time, which were harking back to the genre’s eras of the ‘70s and ‘80s, including his own debut feature, and I used ‘Wrong Turn’ released in the same year as another example, he then went on a rant about how bad that film is. While I agree it is a piece of shit, one of his reasons for not liking it, was because how disappointed he was that the inbred cannibal killers did not rape Eliza Dushku’s character when they tied her to a chair. While this is obviously a purely in it for the money studio hire gig for Roth, and maybe he had less creative control, but while this is feasible, I cannot help thinking of the word “hypocrite.”

The director and screenwriter are not the only problems, as star Willis has not cared for a long time. He has not put any effort into acting since after Rian Johnson’s excellent 2012 sci-fi action thriller ‘Looper’. He just phones it in as usual here for a paycheck; looking bored, he displays none of the charisma he once had in his heyday. He cannot hold a candle to the magnetic presence of the star of the original ‘Death Wish’ films - Charles Bronson.

I actually like the entire original series, because at least they tweaked the formula a little with each entry to do something just a bit different that made me enjoy every one. Michael Winner’s first ‘Death Wish’ is a very fine piece of filmmaking. Steeped in realism, and despite the assessments of its detractors, which even includes Brian Garfield, the author of the novel the film it is adapted from, it is far more a damming commentary on violence that questions vigilante justice rather than a glorification of it. Bronson’s Kersey falls into a delusional state of mind, living in a psychotic fantasy, and we question his true intentions.

The sequels are a different kettle of fish, each with their own unique identity. Again directed by Winner, 'Death Wish II' (1982) is a significant departure from its predecessor, delving deep into exploitative gonzo territory. All of Paul Kersey’s ambiguous traits are removed to turn him into a straight-up anti-hero - an angel of deathly vengeance. Yet it still depicts the repercussions of his actions, as he loses the only emotional relationship he has left, when his girlfriend leaves him. The director goes out of his way to make us enraged at the antagonists, employing the use of some of the most prolonged and disturbing sexual violence ever captured on celluloid (especially in its unrated form) to get us to cheer when they are blown away. The darkest and most brutal entry, it is a solid, nasty piece of exploitation, and my favourite sequel.

Michael Winner’s last contribution ‘Death Wish 3’ (1985) is an over the top, hammy as fuck, fun good time, which is either full of unintentional dumb awfulness, or is an intended smart satire on the action genre, which features prolonged elaborate set-pieces, and quotable cheesy memorable dialogue. J. Lee Thompson’s ‘Death Wish 4: The Crackdown’ (1987) is an attempt to get back to the gritty, serious roots of the franchise, but suffers from a flat TV style of filmmaking. Its message is also heavy handed - “Charles Bronson thinks drugs are bad, and you shouldn’t do them… otherwise he’ll shoot your face off.” Although, it still offers plenty of cool Bronson moments - blowing up John P. Ryan with a grenade launcher in the climax is one of the highlights in the 'Death Wish' canon. Lastly, 1994’s ‘Death Wish V: The Face of Death’ directed by Allan A. Goldstein, gets a lot of hate, but it is unjustified. While Bronson was really pushing it in his years here, it is actually a very decent, entertaining little revenge flick. It is sprinkled with black comedy throughout, features creative and hilarious kills, and kooky villains that includes the late, great character actor Michael Parks portraying one of the best of the franchise.

If you love a bit of action revenge entertainment, and you have yet to see the original films, then I recommend you check these out, as they are hugely enjoyable for the reasons I stated above. Furthermore, James Wan’s sadly overlooked ‘Death Sentence’ (2007), also pisses all over Eli Roth’s stale new version of ‘Death Wish’. It is very loosely based on Garfield’s own sequel novel of the same name, but replaces the protagonist of Kersey, and has an entirely different plot, only borrowing elements from its source material. It features an aggressive, yet sympathetic performance from the always-great Kevin Bacon. His grieving for the murder of his son by a street gang, and his decline due to the consequences of taking revenge, is wholly convincing and emotionally shattering. The severely underrated Garrett Hedlund gives an intense performance as the central villain who is the leader of the street gang, and who Bacon’s character becomes a dark reflection of by the climax. Wan executes blistering action sequences that Roth can only dream of realising on screen.

Eli Roth’s ‘Death Wish’ is such a run of the mill flick of its kind that it could have had any title slapped on it, and had a different name for its anti-hero, because it features none of the personality that made the original series so much damn fun. There are also so many other superior additions to the revenge film that this is best filed under “Forgotten.”

*1/2 out of *****

Dave J. Wilson

©2018 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

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