Horror movie maestro Eli Roth’s lukewarm remake of the notorious vigilante thriller “Death Wish” (*1/2 OUT OF ****), with Bruce Willis taking over the role that elevated Charles Bronson to superstardom in 1974, qualifies as a scrupulously conventional revenge movie. Not only does it wallow in far less violence than the original “Death Wish,” but also “A-Team” scribe Joe Carnahan doesn’t bring either enough nerve or verve with this white-knuckled, urban melodrama. You would think that seasoned, surefooted filmmakers, like Roth and Carnahan, could have fashioned a remake that could have surpassed its intelligent but raw-edged predecessor. Slipshod, superficial, and surprisingly improbable, this tasteful depiction of organized crime updates the saga of Paul Kersey. Roth and Carnahan have changed the hero’s profession from an architect to an emergency room physician. In Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel, Kersey was an accountant. Now, they have shifted the setting is crime-riddled Chicago rather than New York City. Apart from preserving the protagonist’s name, the about only other thing Roth and Carnahan have retained is the finger pistol that Bronson made at Union Station. Unlike the original “Death Wish,” with its cohesive storyline and the Bronson character’s well-developed backstory, the new “Death Wish” doesn’t invest much time in the backstory of the Bruce Willis protagonist.
Anybody who craved the controversial Bronson classic will be disappointed by this pedestrian adaptation. Sixty-two-year-old, chrome-domed Bruce Willis appears twenty years too old to be a Glock-toting, Grim Reaper roaming the lawless streets of the Windy City for degenerates to dispatch without a qualm. Sadly, “Full Metal Jacket’s” Vincent D’Onofrio makes mostly small-talk as Kersey’s concerned brother, but he doesn’t interact meaningfully in Kersey’s escapades. The biggest revelation is the unlikely casting of comedian Mike Epps as a decent ER surgeon in a peripheral role. Reviled during its initial release, director Michael Winner’s “Death Wish” (1974) emerges by comparison as an artistic artifact of 20-century paranoia. Whether they sought to distance themselves from their predecessor, Roth and Carnahan have changed everything that made the original such a memorable commentary on vigilante violence. Mind you, the four original “Death Wish” sequels were pale imitations of the first film. The new “Death Wish” doesn’t generate sufficient charisma to induce a follow-up. Interestingly, despite its glittering aerial camerawork of Chicago, the filmmakers lensed most of the fireworks in Montreal. The violence is gory, but Eli Roth—who helmed the two “Hostel” movies, “Cabin Fever,” and “Green Inferno”—soft-pedals the carnage. “Death Wish” never turns into one of his grisly horror movies.
Paul Kersey rotates as a trauma doctor at Chicago’s North Hospital. In the first scene, a wounded Chicago patrolman dies before Kersey can save him. The dead cop’s partner is incredulous that now Kersey will fight to save the life of the criminal who shot his partner. Like the Charles Bronson hero, the new Paul Kersey has a wife, Lucy Kersey (Elizabeth Shue of “Adventures in Babysitting”), and a daughter, Jordan Kersey (Camila Morrone of “Bukowski”), who has just gotten accepted to a college in New York City. Paul’s troubled younger brother, Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio of “Men-In-Black”), dine out to celebrate the occasion. Before the valet brings around Paul’s car at the restaurant, he snaps a cell phone photo of the destination on the dashboard GPS of Kersey’s car. Later, Lucy and Jordan have just returned after a dinner date that fell through, and they are in the kitchen preparing to make a birthday cake for Paul from scratch. As she is scrutinizing her recipe manual, Lucy notices that a window has been opened. She also spots muddy footprints on the floor. Before either Kersey can react, three assailants in jump suits, baseball caps, and masks surprise them with guns. They take everything of value from Paul’s bedroom vault. Snatching a knife, Jordan slashes one assailant’s cheek, and violence erupts. The head burglar shoots Lucy, while Jordan is clubbed unconscious. Neither woman is raped as in the 1974 original. Paul learns about the incident while he is on duty. He discovers Jordan is comatose, and then finds his wife’s body under a sheet in another ER suite. Naturally, Paul is stunned. Of course, the Chicago police make little progress with its investigation.
One night in the ER, Paul is attending the bloodied body of the valet when he notices his stolen watch on the man’s wrist. Paul jars the examination table, and the valet’s Glock pistol, obviously overlooked during a search, clatters to the floor! Kersey nudges it with his foot under the bed. Later, he retrieves the Glock, his wristwatch, and locates the dead valet’s cell phone in the ambulance. Kersey teaches himself how to handle the Glock. Huddled inconspicuously in a hoodie, he trolls a bad neighborhood and foils a carjacking. During the shootout, the Glock bites him when the slide mangles his hand. Detective Kevin Raines (Dean Norris of “Starship Troopers”) take notes. Not only is Kersey an amateur, but he also is a southpaw.
The biggest difference between the original and the remake is the Bruce Willis hero tracks down the three guys. These encounters are suitably violent. Comparatively, Bronson’s Kersey never found his three muggers. Willis figures out where these dastards are and dispatches them. Their leader, Knox (Beau Knapp of “Run All Night”), texts him. Knox invites him for a pow-wow on neutral ground at a public night spot. The two men swap lead in a bathroom gunfight. Kersey escapes with a wound. Gradually, the police close in, but Kersey has the last word. “Death Wish” lacks the polish of the original and treats the vigilante issue with little of the depth of the original. Meantime, events conclude on a happier note for Bruce Willis’ Paul Kersey. The ironic thing is Kersey defends himself during a home invasion with a fully automatic assault weapon, but the police don’t charge him! Eli Roth’s “Death Wish” amounts to little more than another standard-issue revenge thriller than a polemic about the evils of vigilantism.