Starring Bruce Willis, Elisabeth Shue, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise and Camila Morrone. Directed by Eli Roth. Opens Friday at GTA theatres. 107 minutes. 18A
A bully calls Bruce Willis “Lake Shore Drive” in Death Wish, which is apparently a grievous insult to Chicagoans, implying unmanliness. Calling a Torontonian “Lake Shore Boulevard” wouldn’t have the same impact.
I digress. My beef with Eli Roth’s “reimagining” of the 1974 vigilante shoot-’em-up isn’t the name-calling. It’s the implication that Bruce Willis, slipping into Charles Bronson’s vengeful loafers, could ever be a latte-sipping milquetoast, which he’s obliged to be at the outset.
Article Continued Below
With his perma-glare and boiled-egg noggin, Willis always looks like he’s about to explode even when he’s playing a ghost, if you recall a certain movie I can’t name, for fear of ancient spoilers.
In Death Wish, his Dr. Paul Kersey is so comfortably numb to the violent real world that his home life with loving wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) and darling daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) is introduced to the strains of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby.”
This is after we see Kersey at work as a top Chicago hospital surgeon, attempting — and failing — to save the life of a police officer shot in the line of duty. “We did all we could,” he weakly tells the slain officer’s distraught partner, oozing insincerity.
Students of Death Wish and its franchised follow-ups know what’s coming next. Bad men are going to do very bad things to Kersey’s family that will knock him out of his smug liberal reverie and send him, packing heat, onto the non-Lake Shore Drive mean streets of Chitown (a change from New York in the original).
By my watch, it takes Willis 45 minutes to begin administering bloody payback, grooving to AC/DC’s “Back In Black” (“No. 1 with a bullet, I’m a power pack”).
In the meantime, Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan explore family dynamics and plot thickeners: Kersey’s nice guy/loser younger brother Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio), evidently intended as the pic’s Jiminy Cricket; and homicide detectives Rains and Jackson (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise), who will figure out what’s going on, sooner or later.
Roth and Carnahan also get into the implications of updating a story from the analog ’70s that must play out far differently in the 21st century, where everybody carries a cellphone that’s also a video camera.
Bronson’s vigilante could credibly stalk the streets with little chance of video surveillance. Willis’ “Grim Reaper” — as he’s unimaginatively called by local media — is caught on video that’s swiftly uploaded to social media.
Which makes a witness descriptions of him as merely “a white guy in a hoodie” seem a tad limited, much as I don’t wish to disparage the observational skills of Chicagoans.
He’s Bruce-Motherlovin’-Willis, people! And yeah, I know it’s only a movie, but think of how much better this remake would have been with original choice Liam Neeson in the lead — although Neeson has essentially been doing versions of Death Wish for the past decade.
I digress again. What I really mean to say is that Roth and Carnahan do an OK job updating Death Wish, combining the horror elements (and torture porn) that is Roth’s stock in trade with the gallows humour that is Carnahan’s.
And they both get exactly right the casual way that Americans acquire and use guns, something that recent real-life atrocities have also underlined.
A scene in a gun store has a bubbly salesclerk named Bethany telling Kersey he’ll have to take a safety quiz before buying a lethal weapon. But he needn’t worry, she says with a wink, because “nobody ever fails.”
That thought is even more disturbing that anything seen on the screen in Death Wish.