Tuesday, March 6, 2018

In Theaters: DEATH WISH (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Eli Roth. Written by Joe Carnahan. Cast: Bruce Willis, Vincent D'Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise, Beau Knapp, Camila Morrone, Len Cariou, Mike Epps, Wendy Crewson, Stephen McHattie, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Jack Kesy, Ian Matthews, Stephanie Janusauskas, Luis Oliva, Moe Jeudy Lamour. (R, 107 mins)

Shot in 2016 and with its release date bumped once already after the Las Vegas mass shooting last October, the long-gestating remake of the 1974 classic DEATH WISH is finally in theaters, and once again timed in close proximity to another tragedy with the horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, FL. Given the frequency of mass shootings in America, it's likely that any DEATH WISH release date would coincide with one and unintenionally leave a bad aftertaste. But honestly, that's giving it too much credit. DEATH WISH '18 is empty-calorie junk-food entertainment that stacks the deck against its vigilante hero and throws red meat at the audience. It's designed to get a response, and judging from the crowd applause at key moments--like one guy getting his sciatic nerve sliced open and doused in brake fluid before a jacked-up car falls and smashes his head like a watermelon at a Gallagher show--it's mission accomplished in "Good Guy with a Gun" fantasy wish-fulfillment. This had a rocky journey from the start: in various stages of development since 2006, with Sylvester Stallone, Liam Neeson, Benicio del Toro, Frank Grillo, Russell Crowe, Will Smith, Matt Damon, and Brad Pitt either attached or approached to star, Joe Carnahan (NARC, SMOKIN' ACES, THE GREY) wrote the script and was set to direct until he departed in 2013 over the usual "creative differences." That led to the BIG BAD WOLVES team of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado coming aboard to direct, with Bruce Willis signed on to star. They split when Willis and the producers wouldn't let them rewrite Carnahan's script, but when Eli Roth (HOSTEL) ended up getting the directing gig, the script wound up being completely overhauled by an uncredited Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the writing team behind ED WOOD and THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT. The end result still has Carnahan receiving sole writing credit, even though he left the project three years before production even commenced.

Taking a break from his ongoing, landmark "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series of interchangeable Lionsgate VOD releases, Bruce Willis steps into the iconic Charles Bronson role as Paul Kersey, this time a Chicago ER surgeon instead of a mild-mannered NYC architect. Where DEATH WISH '74, based on a 1972 novel by Brian Garfield, addressed the rise of urban violence and decay in a NYC that was rapidly growing scuzzier and more dangerous by the day, DEATH WISH '18 offers rudimentary commentary on Chicago being one of the most dangerous cities in America, even though the Windy City is mostly portrayed here by Montreal. Of course, that violence hits home when Dr. Kersey is called into work one evening and his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) and college-bound daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) are the victims of a home invasion by a trio of scumbags. Lucy is killed and Jordan is left in a coma, and a shell-shocked Kersey is inevitably frustrated when well-meaning but ineffectual detectives Raines (Dean Norris) and Jackson (Kimberly Elise) can't do much besides wait for a break in the case. His rage simmering to a boil, unable to sleep or focus on work, and possibly thinking of his Don't Mess with Texas father-in-law (Len Cariou), Kersey lucks into obtaining a gun when a gang-banger is brought into the ER and no one sees or hears his gun hit the floor, which Kersey stealthily stashes into his scrubs. He then tries out the gun at an abandoned warehouse and becomes a crack shot over the course of one split-screen montage set to AC/DC's "Back in Black." Donning a series of hoodies he swipes from hospital laundry, Kersey begins roaming the most dangerous areas of Chicago, blowing away thugs, drug dealers, and every shitbag he encounters, becoming a folk hero and viral video sensation dubbed "The Grim Reaper." In a development worthy of the Plot Convenience Playhouse Hall of Fame, Kersey gets a break the cops never could when a gunshot victim lands in the ER sporting the watch Lucy gave him for his birthday, one of the many expensive items stolen in the home invasion. Of course this leads to Kersey vigilantism getting "personal," with one-step-behind Raines and Jackson (who seem to be the only Chicago detectives on duty at any given time) taking way too long to put it together that Kersey is The Grim Reaper.

Roth offers frequent talking head cutaways to Chicago radio personality Mancow and Sirius XM's Sway Calloway discussing the Grim Reaper phenomenon on their morning shows, and DEATH WISH '18 makes the era-appropriate adjustments with smartphone videos and Reaper memes going viral, but this new take seems to split the difference between the grittiness and social commentary of the 1974 original and its increasingly silly sequels. Bronson's Kersey was shocked and repulsed by his own propensity for savage violence, so much so that he throws up after committing his first murder before finding catharsis in his actions. Willis' Kersey sees those actions making him a hero and smirks like Bruce Willis and starts cracking wise, which didn't happen with Bronson until the sequels (much the way A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET's ominous and evil "Fred Krueger" morphs into stand-up comic Freddy Krueger over the course of the subsequent entries). Everyone remembers Bronson's "You believe in Jesus? Well, you're gonna meet him..." from DEATH WISH II and Willis gets his version of that when powerful drug lord "The Ice Cream Man" (Moe Jeudy Lamour) asks "Who the fuck are you?" with the inevitable reply "Your last customer," and...BANG!

Willis' transformation from upper-middle class family man to John McClane circa LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD keeps DEATH WISH '18 from being anything more than a schlocky, instant gratification vigilante thriller, and it's also worth noting that Bronson's Kersey never did find the creeps who killed his wife and left his daughter in a coma, an impossible closure that this new film feels the need to provide. It isn't any better or worse than, say, 1987's DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN, but there's some missed opportunities here, particularly one bit that speaks volumes when Kersey's ne'er-do-well brother Frank (Vincent D'Onofrio) shows up at his house when he isn't home and finds his weapons and ammo stash in the basement rec room where he's been sleeping. The entire room is filled with empties, dirty dishes, dirty clothes, and looks like a particularly nightmarish episode of HOARDERS. Surely, Kersey has gone insane to some degree as evidenced by the living conditions in his basement. At one time, Willis would've been interested in exploring that aspect, but DEATH WISH '18 is more concerned with fashioning this as a throwback Bruce Willis vehicle. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since Willis actually shows up and it's probably his best movie in several  years simply by default. And for really hardcore cult movie nerds, Roth does include a cameo by Sorcery's STUNT ROCK jam "Sacrifice." It has its moments, but at the end of the day, chalk this up as another remake that's an acceptable time-killer but didn't really need to be.

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