Death Wish is the second film made based on the Andrew Garfield novel by the same title. The first adaptation was made in 1974, starring Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, an architect who becomes a one-man army going out into the night killing mean street punks of New York City after his wife is murdered. Over forty years later, Bruce Willis helms the role of Kersey, who’s position is now Emergency Room Doctor, who becomes a vigilante after his wife is murdered, as well as his daughter shot and induced in a coma. Screenwriter Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces) and Director Eli Roth (Hostel) are able to present disturbing elements without making you feel grim in this contemporary remake and/or adaptation, of their version of the revenge tale about a good man who goes bad to protect his family; this time in the mean streets of Chicago.
From the set-up, we learn that Willis’ Dr. Paul Kersey is a wise and judicious man, when he cleverly rebuttals a heckling parent on the sideline of his daughters soccer game after he’s been cursed at and taunted for a scrap. His wife (Elizabeth Shue) intervenes the quarrel with the foul-mouthed parent, Kersey kisses his wife and carries on, in observance of his daughter’s performance in the match. Shortly after this scene, his daughter learns that she’s accepted into her dream college. Kersey says he’s happy, but his wife tells him “You should tell that to your face.” Kersey’s expression is dreary even with the love of his family. Perhaps, this is due to his profession as an emergency room Doctor that’s inevitably resulted in him having a molded face and hardened heart.
After Kersey gets called in to work, intruders break-in to his family’s home and murder his wife and injure his daughter to the point where she’s put into a coma. The hospital they’re taken to is the emergency room Kersey practices at. Eli Roth did a solid job in down playing Kersey’s grief and mourn once he becomes aware of the news while at the hospital. Had it been overboard with emotion, a may have been too much for audiences to bear. Both Eli Roth and Joe Carnahan did a great job in avoiding the depressing direction a scene like this could go and strove to maintain the entertaining action film this contemporary remake is supposed to be.
Bruce Willis is more than just an action hero. His portrayal of mannerisms as a trauma surgeon is authentic and his reactions to himself when his first killing spree goes viral on YouTube is genuine. He’s somewhat giddy, impressed and entertained at the sight of himself wearing a hoodie and killing people. He sets up shop, underground in the basement of his home in what his brother Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio) calls the ‘war room’, which ends up being a canteen of chaos where the room is only lit by late night news shows coming from a TV mounted on the wall and the light emanating from a laptop as Willis eats snacks and conspires his murder spree surrounded by turmoil reminiscent of what’s occurring in his mind.
We learn that Chicago’s law enforcement is overworked and burdened with unsolved crimes. Kersey, while out for vengeance, preys on the immoral crooks of the night, in pursuit of the aggressors who killed his wife to bring the type of justice that Chicago detectives are unable to bring. As the mysterious massacring of thugs gains the awareness of media, Chicago contemplates whether this vigilante is righteous in his killings or if he’s just another villain, to which they label him as the ‘grim reaper’.The revenge scenes are directed with no room for nonsense. Kersey seeks vengeance in a no-holds-barred way, lacking the slightest hesitation when engaging his prey. If you’re on his radar, you’re dead. There’s no mercy. All the action and revenge lead to a badass climax that takes place in a contemporary nightclub bathroom and with the exception of one cheesy kill where a bowling ball falls on top of an assailants head, Death Wish does an adequate job of dealing with the problems of societal crimes while intensely delivering raw action to entertain the fans of the genre.
Director Eli Roth does a skilled job in portraying the juxtaposition after Kersey goes mad, wielding a Glock 17 in the dark streets of the Chicago night killing mean mugging criminals while he’s wearing hoodies over a skinhead that could belong to Bruce Willis just as much as it does Kersey. Eli Roth chooses to tell this part of the story in the classic technique of using a split-screen: on one side he shows Kersey treating patients by removing bullets with scalpels and healing wounds with sutures and on the other side he shows Kersey learning to take a gun apart and put it back together. By doing this, Eli Roth is implying and justifying the plausibility of a Doctor who underwent backbreaking studies in medical school and experiencing traumatic situations first-hand of the raw and bloody demands his chosen profession as a trauma surgeon in the emergency room.
Director Eli Roth employs unique aerials shots of the city skyline and police car chases on the highway. An affective tone for a hard R-rated film was kept throughout while maintaining a balanced sense of humor and pop-culture to keep it commercial. I firmly believe that the ongoing device of utilizing live TV news coverage and local radio show commentary in movies, about how mass media teams report on crimes or the public reactions to them is not making any kind of point to the plot, satiric or otherwise. This current device exploited in movies seems like a cheat; it’s as if the filmmakers of these other movies needed something to cut to in the editing room. Perhaps, Joe Carnahan and Eli Roth were attempting to enlarge the scope of the conflict in the story by making the experience a communal one; to find out what the hell is going on in America. By doing this, one can conclude that it’s their intention to provide art instead of mere entertainment.
Death Wish has enough seriousness in conjunction with comic relief to keep the film commercial for a wide audience. It doesn’t make the mistake the box-office failure Death Sentence made, another Brian Garfield novel adapted into a film starring Kevin Bacon in 2007. Bacon plays a pleasant mannered, suit-wearing executive who similarly seeks revenge on the criminals who murdered his wife, except in his case, he witnessed his family’s slaughter, whereas Dr. Kersey did not. The carnage in Death Sentence was disturbing and distasteful, nobody wants to watch depressing subject matter.
Carnahan’s switch of Kersey from architect in Bronson to trauma surgeon in Willis is a skilled transition because it slightly numbs the grief that would come from being informed of losing a loved one. Dr. Kersey learns of the carnage of his family in an environment he’s accustomed to being emotionally poised and resilient to empathy, which is why we don’t see the hardened trauma surgeon in Dr. Kersey react dramatically with anguish; he’s been in the trauma center every night, his hands have been in perpetual bloodbaths. The mild-mannered Nick Hume of Kevin Bacon is a businessman in a suit; he’s probably never seen a corpse, which justifies the distressing and disturbing reactions of the agony in his performance in James Wan’s Death Sentence, and it didn’t fair well with audiences because there was absolutely zero sense of humor and too seriousness.
Roth and Carnahan’s Death Wish delivers what it promises. Audiences can expect to watch this film, be warned of the crime that exists in society, with the occasional chuckle and disheartened skin jump into the character of Dr. Kersey, who’s really just Bruce Willis doing what he does best on the silver screen: handing out ass whoopin’s.