You know a movie has problems when the only scene that really holds your attention depicts someone being tortured with a scalpel and brake fluid. On the plus side, for those of us who care about such things, this remake of the 1974 vigilante thriller doesn't have much of a gun fetish. While there are shootings aplenty, horror director Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) seems more invested in baroque ways of dispatching people.
On the minus side, the filmmaker doesn't succeed in getting us invested in his hero's crusade or really in anything on-screen. Death Wish is a plodding retread that can't seem to figure out if it's aiming for emotional resonance, political provocation or satire. So it settles for getting our attention the way the Saw movies do: with creative brutality.
Set in Chicago, because Manhattan isn't violent enough these days, the film opens like the dramatization of a Trump speech. As radio jockeys recite the city's murder statistics, we rush to the hospital with a mortally injured cop. ER doctor Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) growls his resistance to treating the "animal" who shot the officer, but he obeys his Hippocratic Oath. For now.
Paul lives in a palatial suburban home with his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and college-bound daughter (Camila Morrone). Even by the standards of movie families who exist only to suffer horribly and inspire the protagonist to vengeance, they're pretty boring. Soon enough, two burglars invade the home and leave Mom dead, Daughter comatose and Dad grieving.
Paul tries talk therapy, but he soon learns there's only one remedy for his pain: a Glock dropped by one of his gangbanger patients. After a thorough YouTube-video education in firearms, the doctor starts executing carjackers and drug dealers, putting the city's talking heads in a whirl. When he gets a tip on his wife's killers, he sets off in search of more systematic revenge.
There's not much of a character arc here. After his first vigilante murder, Paul shows anguish and ambivalence; his next finds him delivering quips. A few body bags later, Willis practically smirks through the aforementioned torture scene, inviting viewers to laugh and cheer (which, at my showing, they did). If the source material was ever a sober examination of how victims of violence become perpetrators, the intent is lost in this film.
At times, Roth edges close to satire: When Paul goes to a gun store, a blond in a push-up bra blithely does her best to sell him an arsenal, pooh-poohing rules and regulations. It could be a scene dreamed up by a gun-control advocate, but that's hardly the prevailing tone of the film. Equally purposeless is Vincent D'Onofrio as Paul's shiftless younger brother; we keep waiting for his character to have a point.
At least D'Onofrio conveys some real grief and unrest, while Willis is mainly ... just there. Whatever talent Liam Neeson apparently has for making blank-faced brutality fun to watch, his fellow action star doesn't share it.
Speaking of action movies, Death Wish is hardly alone in glorifying the killing of suspected criminals without due process. Put the same scenario in a more realistic setting, and it tends to divide viewers along political lines, repelling some and thrilling others. Roth's movie, though, lacks the courage of its unpleasant convictions. Rather than giving propulsive, angry energy to its urban-revenge scenario, it goes through the motions as if the death wish were its own.