Death Wish is a motion picture that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s a movie about vengeance at its core, and director Eli Roth attempts to reimagine the campy originals from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The problem here is that Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan seem to have more to say, but they never really say it. Sprinkle in some apathetic acting by action-film superstar Bruce Willis, and Death Wish sends audiences on an emotionless roller coaster for 107 minutes. By scratching the surface of dark themes like vigilantism, police incompetence, and revenge, one would expect the movie to take a stance of some kind. Unfortunately, the end product is marked by contradicting opinions and hampered by an uncertain vision.
Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis), an ER doctor in Chicago, has seen it all. Working in one of the most violent cities in America, Kersey deals with gunshot wounds and stabbings on a nightly basis. In addition to his career, Kersey has the perfect family life, as he lives in an affluent neighborhood with his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and daughter (Camila Morrone) and has a great relationship with his loving but deadbeat brother Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio). Trouble starts to brew after a family lunch in the city, as a shady valet attendant takes note of Kersey’s wealth. After infiltrating his GPS system, the valet attendant obtains Kersey’s address, making him the next target for a home invasion. Predictably, he is called into work the night the invasion takes place, forcing him to leave his wife and daughter for the night. The robbery does not go as smoothly as expected, and Kersey is called down to see his brutalized family at the very hospital where he works. The normally reserved and calm doctor is struck with desperation after the police continue to fall short in their investigation. Taking the law into his own hands, Kersey transforms into the Grim Reaper, a hooded vigilante who polarizes the people of Chicago.
It’s difficult to feel bad for any of the characters in Death Wish, as they are rarely depicted in any sort of real human interaction. This stems from the emotionless Willis, who looks disinterested during the entire film (save for a few action scenes). When Willis’ reaction to his daughter getting accepted to her dream college is vaguely similar to his reaction when he finds out his wife was brutally murdered, it raises a red flag. To be fair, he still knows how to act while handling a gun and running around in a fast-paced action sequence; but, surprisingly enough, there isn’t much action in this movie. Long, drawn-out sequences of Kersey learning how to shoot a gun or radio hosts debating the ethics of vigilantism comprise most of the run time.
Mixed political commentary aside, Eli Roth does a decent job at the helm of this film. Despite what you would expect from a Roth feature, he stays out of his own way and lets the story unfold. Death Wish isn’t defined by unnecessary gore (although there are a few gory scenes), and that’s a good thing. Yet it never gives viewers a reason to feel for these characters, either. Instead, Roth asks the audience to pick a side: Either they’re for or against Kersey’s revenge-laden escapades.
In its simplest form, Death Wish is a mindless action flick. However, by making a mockery of how the police handle murders and how guns are sold, and by glorifying a rogue vigilante, the film tries to convey some sort of convoluted message. This message is never properly delivered before the end credits roll, and most viewers will leave disappointed. Not ridiculous enough to obtain “cult classic” status and not good enough to be seen more than once, Death Wish will be forgotten after its short run in theaters.