Death Wish was directed by Eli Roth (Knock Knock, Hostel), written by Joe Carnahan (Boss Level, The Grey), who adapts from a novel by Brian Garfield and the original screenplay by Wendell Mayes (Anatomy of a Murder, The Poseidon Adventure), and stars Bruce Willis (Survive the Night, Cosmic Sin), Vincent D’Onofrio (Escape Plan, Daredevil), Dean Norris (Breaking Bad, Fist Fight), Kimberly Elise (Ad Astra, Alpha Alert), Beau Knapp (Mosquito State, The Signal), Ronnie Gene Blevins (Joe, What Josiah Saw), Jack Kesy (The Outpost, 12 Strong), Camila Morrone (Never Goin Back, Valley Girl) and Elisabeth Shue (The Boys, Greyhound). It follows a doctor as he turns vigilante to find the men who destroyed his life and family.
The Plot: Revenge action/crime movies have existed since the inception of film, and the original Death Wish was one of the most generic and narratively weak. This rendition fare leagues better, working through what by all means should be rote material with verve and emotion.
Esteemed surgeon Paul Kersey (Willis) leads a nice life with his wife Lucy (Shue) and daughter Jordan (Morrone); one which is made better by their white-collar living. Among the benefits are outings to fancy restaurants with Paul’s brother Frank (D’Onofrio). However, it’s at one of these dinners that a low-end criminal tips off robbers Knox (Knapp), Joe (Blevins) and Fish (Kesy) with Paul’s home address. While most other revenge movies are eager to work through the setup in ten minutes or less, Death Wish adds another five to good effect.
While Paul gets called into work, the three robbers break into the house to find valuables. They get said gains, but they also get a fight out of Lucy and Jordan, and in the ensuing scuffle Lucy is killed and Jordan is put into a coma. During the follow-up by detectives Raines (Norris) and Jackson (Elise) Paul learns that he’s going to have to wait a long while before any evidence turns up or any suspects are arrested if that happens at all. Paul isn’t going to sit idly by, and with a gun finding its way into his hands, he takes his first shot at vigilantism.
After his sloppy first attempt, Raines and Jackson hear about the “Grim Reaper” and begin putting Paul’s case in the front of the priority list, all while Paul is working through the nights to try and bring justice to his family on his own volition. Roth handles all of the ensuing plot stuff very well, never stopping for too long or speeding through the action, making sure to utilize the wonderful cast lest they be forgotten in order to get through the script.
Roth’s Death Wish is a profoundly simple movie from the perspective of plot, just like the original. Unlike the original, this story flows well and isn’t a pipeline of political ideology. A vast improvement.
The Characters: This journey is clearly Kersey’s, and Carnahan does a great job at creating a new and slightly different version of the character while also doing good work with some of the side characters.
Paul is a solid family man, enjoying time with his wife, daughter, and brother when possible, however, his work gets in the way frequently. It’s his reaction to their fates that makes him different than many other protagonists in these types of movies. After the trauma that he’s been put through, he can’t bear to sleep in his own room or even be on the ground floor of his own house, instead spending his spare time secluded in his basement, away from Frank. Even when he begins taking action, he visits Jordan in the hospital every day to spend time with her. His priorities are straight and sympathetic.
What’s better is the way Death Wish integrates Paul’s career path of being a trauma surgeon into his actions and behaviours. In the opening sequence, it’s made clear that he’s detached from the things that he sees while on the job, stone-solid in the face of death until he’s on the receiving end. However, when he’s out during the night fighting crime and trying to track the men responsible for tearing his family apart, he uses his medical knowledge on those who may know something in creative and gruesome ways. It’s a great way to integrate characterization into action.
Paul’s family is realistic in their attitudes too, with Jordan a rising athlete eager to go to college and prove herself to the world but never forgetting her parents, even if she doesn’t want to use her time baking a cake for her dad. Lucy had recently finished her doctorate and was ready to celebrate Paul’s birthday. Interestingly, it’s noted that she reigns Paul in during confrontations, shedding more light on Paul’s subsequent actions. Frank is trying to do right by Paul, paying debts and checking in on him after the attack, just as interested in finding the killers.
Those said killers are the weak link in the cast. Apart from some brief dialogue between Knox and Lucy during the robbery, we learn that he’s able to spin events to get out of trouble and isn’t (or wasn’t) planning on violence but is now enraged at Paul. The other two are average henchmen with little to set them apart from countless others.
Carnahan and Willis do such a great job with recreating Paul Kersey with depth and feelings that the passable villains don’t dampen Death Wish’s story, we understand Paul, that’s the driving force.
The Crime: While this Death Wish does have quite a few action sequences, it’s more about the path that Paul goes down and the cleaning up he does to avoid being identified, creating a system for the main character to abide by.
Roth creates a tense atmosphere during the break-in, using his experience directing horror movies to his advantage, setting the tone effectively. As a catalyst for vigilantism, this is a balanced way to get the movie rolling. Roth illustrates the flaws in the system and the people it serves for a time, making Paul sit and wait as Raines and Jackson try to figure out the case with too many other cases on hand and not enough evidence. Paul (in a contrived way) finds the lowest criminal first and a gun along with him and becomes his own kind of criminal, having had enough of waiting.
Documentation of the process of Paul becoming an antihero is superb, he starts as an amateur, barely even able to fire his gun without cutting his hand, but this is practice (and being a good samaritan) for him. Death Wish doesn’t neglect the tendency of the Bronson entries had to go off on tangents to see Paul clean up the streets, but it doesn’t allow that to become the majority of the runtime.
After a few close calls with the law, he starts cleaning up his tracks, wearing concealing clothing, destroying surveillance equipment, and never purchasing a gun until it makes sense. He makes a sort of routine for himself and becomes adept at his new craft, chronicling his makeshift justice and descent into obsession as time goes on.
Like the original, the criminals (not Kersey, the other ones) aren’t mob bosses or bank robbers, they’re thugs. Knox and Fish are good at what they do, and that’s thieving goods from unsuspecting civilians and selling whatever non-cash items they get. This is important to note because the makers of this Death Wish keep the skill levels relatively even, grounding what could’ve been a superhero movie sans capes.
Criminal actions are well captured here, everything that keeps Paul from getting caught makes sense, and the underbelly isn’t cartoonish.
The Technics: This version of Death Wish is better on just about every technical level than the original. Most notably, the script has real thought put into it, from its dialogue being serious while still allowing a few one-liners instead of the boneheaded writing of the first. There’s a satirical bite to some exchanges but Carnahan doesn’t go crazy with it. Speaking of satire, there’s criticism too, with the diegetic radio broadcasts discussing the “Grim Reaper” offering valid arguments on Paul’s actions. The movie never picks a side though, electing only to follow the character. Some script issues do exist, such as two big contrivances, one being the gun from earlier, but they’re rare.
Editing by veteran Mark Goldblatt (The Terminator, Chappie) is great too, keeping a steady pace and clarity during the action sequences that are distinct and memorable thanks to Roth’s direction. Death Wish never overstays its welcome.
2018’s Death Wish may just be Roth’s finest hour so far. It tops the original in every way, from crime to characters, to plot, to acting (Willis gives one of his finest performances). While the villains aren’t great, just about everything else is.
Death Wish is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Platforms from MGM. If you’re looking for more of the same, FilmTagger has some ideas.