Shooting Blanks: The ‘Death Wish’ Remake

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“[P]overty is the parent of revolution and crime.”
– Aristotle, Politics, Book II, section VI

*[I saw Death Wish last night as part of an advanced screening at the AMC Van Ness in San Francisco.]

Two things happened before last night’s advanced screening.

The first was when I stood waiting to purchase some snacks. Standing behind me was a Black boy – maybe 5 or so – with a woman whom I assume was his grandmother or aunt. They were picking up something to eat before they walked into see Black Panther (with which this movie shares a composer). He was pretty jumpy about getting “finally see it”. I envied the cinematic adventure this li’l man was about to take. I bet the smile on his face was even wider when the film was over.

The other was a pre-show message from director Eli Roth. In the pre-filmed clip, he thanked we advanced audiences for being the first to see the movie. He encouraged those of us that liked it tell everyone on social media. For those of us who didn’t like it, he preferred that we “shut the fuck up! I will hunt you down and go ‘Bear Jew’ on your ass!”

That ended up being the single most entertaining thing about watching the right-wing wet dream that is this movie.

Paul Kersey’s life is ideal. The biggest concern on the mind of the happily-married surgeon is the inevitable “empty nest syndrome” that comes with his daughter’s college acceptance. One night when’s called away to surgery, Paul’s wife and daughter are attacked in their home. Paul’s wife is killed and their daughter falls into a coma.

Having suddenly lost faith in the system he trusted, Paul steals a gun from a patient and begins murdering criminals every night. Beloved by the public and chased by the police, it isn’t long before the vigilante dubbed “The Grim Reaper” suddenly becomes indistinguishable from the crooks he’s hunting.

You don’t need me to tell you this, but this is the worst possible time for a movie like this to come out. This flick stops just short of being a 100-min. recruitment piece for the NRA. This isn’t a story in which gun violence is an option to solving crime, it’s the only solution to solving crime. This throwback to the “revenge” flicks of the ‘70s and ‘80s imagines a world in which White-American suburbia isn’t merely threatened, it’s actively under attack. What else is there to do but arm oneself to the teeth?

This Breitbart wet dream takes place in a Chicago were it’s not Black people whose lives are in danger, but rather the police and average (read: White) citizens. The movie opens with a cop (a Black cop, mind you) being rushed to the emergency room only for Kersey to pronounce him on the gurney. This incident is given the same heft the death of Kersey’s wife later receives. One would think this is the first of many lessons about the lingering effects of violence. One would be wrong. Every other death is treated like Kersey is attempting to rack up points on a video game. When a pre-vigilante Paul’s car is met by a “squeegee man” as he’s on the phone with a detective, said detective advises him to “run [the squeegee man] over. It doesn’t even count as a crime.”

Yeah. It’s that kind of movie.

And movie is so nakedly racist that’s it’s almost a relief that they aren’t trying to hide it. Yes, the crooks Paul shoots run the racial gamut, but the worst, most wide-reaching crimes are always shown to be the fault of people of color: the Latino valet who steals Paul’s home address; the Black drug dealer whom Paul shoots in broad daylight; hell, the movie refuses to end until Paul threatens the life of an Asian thief he sees.

But, as Roger Ebert famously said, it’s not what a movie’s about, it’s how it’s about it. And Death Wish fails. Eli Roth showed a lot of promise – if some unforgivable obnoxiousness – with his debut film Cabin Fever. Since then, he’s repeatedly squandered that talent by refusing to grow; content with his status as the US’s preeminent “torture porn” director. The only other project he’s done that was even remotely interesting was his Thanksgiving faux trailer from the film Grindhouse.

He still gets his “gorenography” jones off here, with graphic shootings, attempted rapes, and lingering close-ups of every wound and injury. The worst is when a man’s head is crushed and his brains splatter everywhere.

And since the majority of the performances we see are instantly forgettable (Elisabeth Shue is around all of 10 minutes before she gets the “Women in Refrigerators” treatment) when they aren’t embracing stereotypes, I’ll just stick to the one we see for the majority of running time: Bruce Willis. He clearly doesn’t give a shit. Like Harrison Ford, he’s at that point where he no longer does movies due to a passion for the art form, but rather the massive paycheck he’s bound to pick up. Willis once became popular for his trademark smirk; now his face barely moves, with the exception of his lips. And if the star of the movie can’t be bothered to care, why should we?

Do you want to see a project that tackles modern crime, gun control, and PTSD in a reasonable way? If so, watch Marvel’s The Punisher on Netflix. That’s a project wholly aware it’s coming after films like the original Death Wish series (which influenced The Punisher character).

Eli Roth’s remake of Death Wish is not that project. It’s a dramatization of the old Mao Tse-tung quote about power flowing from the barrel of a gun. Politics aside, I could deal with its point-of-view if it weren’t so badly-made. And, oh boy, is this one badly-made.

GRADE:                F

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