Review: ‘Death Wish’ tries to have it both ways on guns

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service

Since everything old is new again, it stands to reason that the 1974 Charles Bronson vehicle “Death Wish,” based on a 1972 novel by Brian Garfield, would be dredged up and remade for new audiences. But what resonated in the ‘70s takes on a different tenor 44 years later. Context is everything, and the problem with this “Death Wish,” starring Bruce Willis, directed by Eli Roth, written by Joe Carnahan, is the concept would have always sat uneasy in our current state of affairs.

Willis’ character, Dr. Paul Kersey, a surgeon, is given more than ample justification for his actions. His wife, Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) and daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) are horrifically attacked during a home invasion robbery. Lucy is killed and Jordan is seriously injured. Desperate he was unable to protect his family, Kersey takes matters into his own hands and sets out to enact some vigilante justice on the streets of Chicago, and possibly find the killers of his wife. Blasting away random drug dealers and car jackers, he earns himself the nickname of “Grim Reaper.”

Roth has a horror background, and he can’t resist squishing around with the blood and guts. But his filmmaking craft is slick — the film moves and careens efficiently. As Paul’s saving lives, extracting bullets, he’s practicing to take lives, giving bullets. That’s the kind of arch commentary “Death Wish” should, and can’t maintain.

The film tries to have it both ways on the gun issue. Roth nails the perverse nature of gun culture in America and includes commentary from radio hosts who argue against lionizing the Grim Reaper, but that feels reverse-engineered after the fact.

Ultimately, the audience doesn’t cheer when a radio host passionately voices opposition to this normalization of violence. They cheer when Kersey, “a good guy with a gun” we’re told, blasts a bad guy with no recourse or consequence. What does that say about us? More importantly, what does that say about our movies? Nothing good in either case.

‘Death Wish’


Rated R for strong bloody violence, and language throughout.

Running time: 107 minutes