Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #8 – Death Wish (2018)

Posted: March 8, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

The original was better. There I said it, the whine of every movie snob old enough to fondly remember the better movies from last year or four decades ago. With Death Wish (2018) the whine is real and highly deserved.

Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) has become a trauma surgeon in bullet-torn Chicago. He saves everybody, including criminals. One night, three burglars break into the Kersey house surprised that trauma surgeons don’t have regular schedules and kill Mrs. Kersey and gravely injure the daughter. The good doctor becomes receptive to a pro-gun vigilante justice argument because the cops will take forever to make an arrest. Criminals start dying from gunshots; the city of Chicago either stands up to cheer – “finally!” – or tries to double down on various anti-vigilante arguments.

I hate this movie more with each second I need to take typing this review. I’ll steal the words of a brief acquaintance some twenty years ago describing Judge Dredd – “I’m as liberal as the next guy, but I prefer that my fascist movies be honest and unapologetic about it.”

You can smell the unfortunate all over this film whether it’s hitting market two weeks after Parkland. Or the larger issue of Black Lives Matter where the original Charles Bronson film made no bones that some of Paul Kersey’s victims would be black. In fact, when you’re done reading this review go back to the original movie and fast forward to the Upper West Side cocktail party. You’ll hear many different sides of the vigilante debate, like a Liberal white woman expressing concern that the shooter takes down a lot of black people. The businessman trying to hit on her expresses the thought that if there are a lot of black criminals then statistically a lot of black criminals would get shot. Back then movies like this presented both sides and let the audience work it out…for good or for ill.

The new version falls flat dealing with these themes largely because the Step Carefully Square Dance proves completely obvious. The initial killers are white and Hispanic, mostly like the original. The movie then goes out of its way to align Paul Kersey as a not racist vigilante by saving a black couple from a carjacking from thugs that may split the difference between white and Hispanic. Then to really tango out of this firestorm, the script heavy-handedly makes sure that the one black target, the Ice Cream Man, is so loathsome in his intentionally shooting small children in the leg to force them to sell drugs that even blacks might just abandon him to his fate.

But, the most glaring difference between the original that set up the debate and this silly shit storm is that Paul Kersey finds and dispatches the men who are actually responsible for the crime against his family. If the point of a movie, like Death Wish is a discussion that asks – “how far would you go?” – then finding the killers you actually wanted to find damages the presentation of the metaphor. We got decades of discussion from Charles Bronson never finding the killers (until one the many sequels, I think) that comic book fans have gotten from Batman doing the same thing without guns in Gotham. We have no reason to discuss these things with Bruce Willis in the driver’s seat because it’s over too soon, despite emulating the original movie with Paul Kersey in another city pointing a gun finger at a criminal as the very last shot of the movie.

I found translating Paul Kersey from architect to doctor weakened the story in so many ways. We’ve come to assume high moral standards from good doctors due to what we assume about the Hippocratic Oath. And Bruce Willis’ transition to vigilante perhaps needed a few more intermediate steps showing him wrestling with his professional ethics against doing harm. This thread culminates in Dr. Kersey torturing one of his killers to find the remaining villain as if we’d suddenly channels to watch a Holocaust movie featuring Dr. Mengele. Stick to one thing, please!

Additionally, I just liked the way the unofficial police tolerance of the vigilante played out in the original. In the Charles Bronson version, he is wounded and the cops find the killer’s gun at the scene and find Mr. Kersey’s fingerprints. The killer has been good for the troubled city of New York reducing the crime rate by convincing criminals to stay home. They want the shootings to end, but do so quietly because the fear of the killer coming back might buy a few more months of lowered crime rates. The lead detective proposes that Paul Kersey take a transfer out of town in return for the pistol thrown in the East River.

By contrast, the detectives in the new version handle the same scene with a mushier morass of indirect questions highlighted by tone of voice. Especially since the final gunfight takes place in the Kersey home after Dr. Kersey decides to buy a gun legally and throw away the unregistered Glock, these detectives show that they know but don’t really care to prove. It all plays out clumsy.

I will finish the hit piece part of this review bringing up the one moment that takes a movie that was still semi-watchable despite all the flaws described above: the bowling ball. A pink bowling ball proves crucial to the plot representing both the worst kind of deus ex machina and is so out of place largely because it was put on screen without the comedy sound effects it truly deserved. But, Death Wish (2018) isn’t a comedy…pity.

How bad was this bowling ball moment? I hereby propose that Pink Bowling Ball join Jump the Shark and Nuke the Fridge in our pantheon of trite film clichés guaranteed to leave you laughing in a way that ruins the movie.

All of this silliness serves to wipe out quite a few things that are actually good about this movie. Mister Willis brings his trademark charm and cool that barely hides the underlying goofiness of his action hero life. In a script that made sense, we’d be talking about Paul Kersey 2.0 dethroning most of the portrayals of John McClane (the sequels, Ducky, not Die Hard) as the definition of Bruce Willis’ career.

Completely lost in the shuffle we have Vincent D’Onofrio as the brother, a new character from the original, who steps up to protect his family by showing up for his niece in hospital and then reels his brother back to reality. The performance here…well there just aren’t any words it’s so good.

With that I end and pretend I didn’t see this movie…

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