Even before the release of this year’s “Death Wish,” there was some hand-wringing over just what director Eli Roth was thinking. Doesn’t a remake of the 1974 vigilante movie — starring Charles Bronson as an upper-income white guy who avenges his wife’s murder by shooting black muggers — seem a little tone-deaf, if not inflammatory, at the moment? Is a new “Death Wish,” starring Bruce Willis and relocated to the gun-death capital of Chicago, really the movie we need now?
Actually, if you were looking for a film that presses buttons and fans flames, you’d be better served by Michael Winner’s troubling, confrontational original. Roth, the director behind such jocular horror films as “The Green Inferno” and “Hostel,” has turned in a much safer and conventional version that goes in for bullet-riddled action, some gratuitous gore and bloody slapstick. Overall, it’s an entertaining, if formulaic, update. It also gives the story a new wrinkle that is somehow both satisfying and disappointing, but more on that later.
The screenplay, by Joe Carnahan from Brian Garfield’s novel, turns the role of Paul Kersey (Willis) from New York architect to Chicago surgeon. (Imagine how bored a Manhattan vigilante would be today.) Roth spares us the ugly details of the suburban home invasion that kills Kersey’s wife, Lucy (Elisabeth Shue), and leaves his daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone), in a coma, but Willis helps us feel Paul’s shock and grief. (Vincent D’Onofrio is a welcome addition as Paul’s supportive brother, Frank.) When the police investigation stalls, Kersey grabs a gun and hits the streets in an ominous hoodie.
What follows isn’t too different from a Spider-Man movie, in which a novice crime-fighter begins protecting his city. This one, however, features twisted necks, crushed skulls and scalpel-torture. Roth’s comic timing is impressive — the bowling ball is a nice touch — but scenes like this also make it hard to take the movie seriously.
That’s clearly the intention, though. Where the original film presented Kersey as a problematic figure who preyed on random criminals, this version lets him off the moral hook: Now he’s looking for Knox (Beau Knapp), the somewhat generic sleazeball who killed his wife. Kersey still becomes a polarizing newsmaker — avenging angel or grim reaper? — but the film’s entire tone has changed. “Death Wish” comes on as provocative and topical but, in the end, it’s just entertainment.