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Review: ‘Death Wish’ leaves the difficult questions to the professionals (Includes first-hand account)

Vigilantism is a divisive topic — even one person can have multiple opinions that place them on both sides of the argument. Is it ever acceptable for someone to act as judge, jury and executioner? Is it okay in some instances, but not others? What responsibility does the justice system have to hold vigilantes accountable? What about their part in creating vigilantes? Are superheroes, who are essentially taking the law into their own hands, also vigilantes? There’s a lot of room for discussion and film is the ideal playground to explore these grey areas. Currently, the issue is being tackled in the remake of the 1974 film of the same name, Death Wish.

Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) is an ER surgeon who spends most of his days saving lives — unfortunately, most of his patients are victims of the escalating violence around the city. However, when his wife is murdered and his daughter is left in a coma after a home invasion, Paul has trouble justifying his role in the seemingly endless cycle. With no leads and a burgeoning case load, the police are no closer to finding the attackers weeks later… and Paul gets tired of waiting. Starting with a few impromptu acts of heroism, the “Grim Reaper” as he becomes known, starts cleaning up the streets and getting closer to discovering the identities of his wife’s killers.

The Charles Bronson vehicle was a raw, brutal revenge picture in which an architect and former soldier goes on a killing spree after his daughter is callously raped by a group of thugs. Thankfully this picture has foregone this inhumane detail and instead compounds Paul’s motivations with the overwhelming criminal activity by which he’s surrounded. Director Eli Roth takes a break from horror movies to make this far less gory thriller, while demonstrating he understands the genre and its requirements. The film has a bit of a Taken tone as Paul delivers a series of one-liners while honing his killer instincts in the streets — thankfully it mostly avoids the jump from amateur to pro that plagues many similar plots. So as radio hosts debate the acceptability of a serial protector, Paul shoots his way through the criminal underground.

Unable to operate as freely as his predecessor due to cellphone videos, CCTV cameras and security footage, Willis’ character hides behind an inconspicuous hoodie, which also supports his “average Joe taking a stand” persona. In the current climate of renewed demands for gun control, one of the most amusing scenes occurs when Paul visits a gun store and is helped by “Bethany.” Unsurprisingly, this picture focuses on the entertainment value of the story rather than solving any real issues… though it does raise some interesting questions.

Willis isn’t quite as grave as his Unbreakable character, but he’s definitely playing this role more seriously than a feisty John McClane. As Paul gets more comfortable with his second calling, the movie takes on more elements of an action movie; but it’s still primarily a crime thriller. In the meantime, the strangely happy-go-lucky homicide detectives haphazardly piece together the clues that will lead to the Grim Reaper, which is somewhat more believable than the mass of resources put behind catching Bronson’s vigilante while his wife’s killer roamed free.

This film is certainly not trying to be its predecessor, acknowledging that we live in different times that affect how a vigilante would operate. This understanding allows it to entertain audiences with its own brand of justice while superficially addressing issues regarding crime rates, police resources, and justice for victims and their families.

Part 2: He has a wish… a wish of death. #DeathWishMovie

A post shared by Death Wish (@deathwishmovie) on

Director: Eli Roth
Starring: Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio and Elisabeth Shue

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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