Beyond its bloody plot devices and character development that quickly flatlines, “Death Wish” provides enough pulpy thrills to justify its bizarre, uneven existence. It’s not an easy watch, emptying endless clips of hackneyed dialogue and lazy exposition onto the hospital floor. The film’s brute executions are more akin to horror films than vigilante flicks, with gruesome murders serving as a strong PSA for both pro-gun and anti-gun activists. While intended to be a serious event, “Death Wish” is undoubtedly hilarious, proving that bad movies can sometimes be good through trigger happy accidents.
Prior to this “Death Wish,” there were five other films released from 1974-1994, featuring the grizzled Charles Bronson on the hunt for vigilante justice. The first of that franchise came out during a time of increased violent crime in the United States, with audiences vicariously living through Bronson’s brute justice seeker. In a way, the same could be said for 2018’s “Death Wish,” with audiences using Bruce Willis’ family man as a cathartic vessel to express their rage over our mass shooting America.
That duality, between being a safe suburban dad and murderous vengeance seeker, is what drives “Death Wish.” Willis plays Paul Kersey, a doctor whom when not stitching up the wounds of Chicago gunshot victims, is working on his family bedside manner with his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) and daughter Jordan (Camila Morone). Paul also has a down-on-his-luck brother named Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio), a loving sibling who’s always in need of a loan.
While at work, thieves break into Kersey’s home with the intent to steal from the family safe. They don’t plant to kill Lucy or Jordan, but the theft goes awry leaving Lucy dead and Jordan hospitalized. Kersey is supposedly distraught, despite showing only morsels of emotion, and becomes increasingly frustrated when Detective Raines (Dean Norris) and Detective Jackson (Kimberly Elise) make no progress in capturing Lucy’s killer. With a trusty stolen glock by his side and and endless supply of YouTube videos to educate him on criminal methods, the good-natured doc is ripe to shed his lab coat to adopt the skin of a full-blown murderer.
“Death Wish’s” genesis story is fascinating, speaking to the internet’s ability to educate individuals in malevolent activities, and how the bureaucratic red tape of police stations seal more cases than they solve. But as Kersey goes on committing murders, the ideological intrigue evaporates. The killings feel nonsensical, with Kersey first trying to avenge his wife, and then pivoting to avenge anyone who has ever been wronged by society.
Each murder is followed by talk radio hosts discussing the political ramifications of Kersey, whom they dub “The Grim Reaper.” But these discussions don’t add any valuable insight and are clearly just a product placement for those real stations and shows. We don’t know what effect Kersey is leaving on society, but we have a strange, subliminal desire to tune in to Sway in the Morning on SiriusXM once we’re out of the theater.
“Death Wish” ungracefully shifts from murder mystery to hopeless melodrama in the movie’s second act. It’s hard not to contain one’s laughter when Willis tries to deliver an impassioned monologue about how his daughter is in medical restraints, or “handcuffs,” but the criminals who murdered his wife are free. There’s also a weird message being sent when all the people Willis kills seems to be residents of lower income neighborhoods, as if these individuals or areas are responsibility for all of society’s ills. And when Kersey finally comes face-to-face to the head honcho criminal behind his wife’s murder, the thug’s motivations make no sense, with the film hoping his creepiness will serve as a storytelling bandage to poor writing.
Still, when Kersey shoots and kills, his bullets hit on every enjoyment level. This is where Eli Roth shines as a director, making up for Joe Carnahan’s screenwriting faults with gut-spewing and brain-bashing carnage. These scenes are often stupid, like when men with assault rifles are sent to kill Kersey at his home, as if police won’t be watching him or neighbors won’t hear their bullets. But the flawed moviegoing advice of “turning off one’s brain” really does hold true in these sequences. Even if you aren’t thrilled, you won’t be able to hold your laughs hostage.
Asinine, poorly-conceived and painfully-executed, “Death Wish” is an strong contender for both worst movie of 2018 and a shoe-in for most unintentionally satisfying moviegoing experience this year. What more could you wish for?