Skip to main content

What lit the fire that set off our Mr Reaper?

Death Wish
(2018)

(SPOILERS) I haven’t seen the original Death Wish, the odd clip aside, and I don’t especially plan to remedy that, owing to an aversion to Charles Bronson when he isn’t in Once Upon a Time in the West and an aversion to Michael Winner when he wasn’t making ‘60s comedies or Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirots. I also have an aversion to Eli Roth, though (this is the first of his oeuvre I’ve seen, again the odd clip aside, as I have a general distaste for his oeuvre), and mildly to Bruce when he’s on autopilot (most of the last twenty years), so really, I probably shouldn’t have checked this one out. It was duly slated as a fascistic, right-wing rallying cry, even though the same slaters consider such behaviour mostly okay if the protagonist is super-powered and wearing a mask when taking justice into his (or her) own hands, but the truth is this remake is a quite serviceable, occasionally amusing little revenger, one that even has sufficient courage in its skewed convictions that it allows Bruce to get off scot free.

There were various points when the mild whiff of expectation was attached to the Death Wish remake, back when Joe Carnahan – a writer-director forever seeming to promise more than he actually delivers – was masterminding it. He still gets a screenplay credit, but fell out of the project over disputes with Bruce on the direction it should take. You can argue there’s no need for this movie ever, of course, but that never stopped anyone who saw dollar signs hanging over a dormant property, and it isn’t exactly like it’s Straw Dogs, where someone’s remaking something with a controversial but positive reputation.

Bruce is Dr Paul Kersey, a trauma surgeon busy in the ER when a home invasion leaves his wife (Elizabeth Shue) dead and his daughter (Camila Morrone) in a coma. Kersey’s quite passive and unemotional at first – very Bruce, then – until detectives Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise continually fail to get their men, and the doc happens up a handy piece dropped by a trauma victim in the ER one night. From there, the decisive justice of the Grim Reaper is unleashed, taking out carjackers and drug dealers and having his actions debated on the radio (attempting to pre-empt critiques by tackling the racial connotations head-on: “You got a white guy in a hoodie killing black people. You don’t have a problem with that?”)

Roth directs competently, but it’s clear his heart is much more in the horror and splatter elements – the home invasion, Bruce torturing Joe (Ronnie Gene Blevins) with brake fluid and crushing his brains beneath a pickup, performing home surgery on gunshot wound – than the police procedural side. Bruce’s first appearance suggests the absurdity of casting of Bruce Campbell as a doctor in Intolerable Cruelty, but once you get past that, he’s having, by his eternally bored standards, a mildly good time.

Indeed, I have no idea what the Carnahan version would have been like, but at least Roth makes no pretence that this is a serious-minded analysis of vigilante justice. Nor does he care that it may be feeding into gun lobby sentiments concerning self-protection, or fuelling fear-inducing stereotypes concerning personal safety. There’s a very evident streak of humour shot through the movie; it could have done with more of that, even. Bruce finds a friend of his comatose daughter reading her Essays in Positive Economics by Milton Friedman (“I’m not sure that’s gonna help her wake up”), and fellow baldie Norris contributes his share of wisecracks (“Run ‘em over. Doesn’t count as a crime” he says of a windscreen washer; a note on a wall of open cases says “We’re gonna need a bigger board”). Kersey’s shrink (Wendy Crewson) advises his improvement (“Well, whatever you’re doing, keep it up”; “Okay. I will” chuckles Bruce in reply). At one point, Kersey is at the mercy of The Fish (Jack Kesy) when a friendly bowling ball rolls off a top shelf and cracks his assailant on the head; it’s Three Stooges time. Such moments are surely evidence of the rewrite fingerprints of comedy maestros Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.

Naturally, the villains are entirely repugnant and irredeemable, making their conscience-free murders all that much less unpalatable. Vincent D’Onofrio is entirely wasted in a nothing part as Kersey’s brother, so much so, I felt sure at one point he would turn out to have been involved with the home invasion creeps. Proceedings climax in Bruce killing the most irredeemable of the irredeemable bad guys (Beau Knapp) with a VERY big gun while his daughter cowers under the stairs; perhaps unsurprisingly, this was a Liam Neeson movie at one point (imagine how well it would have gone down in light of his recent remarks).

Entirely irresponsible filmmaking? Quite possibly. But there’s a hypocrisy in singling this kind of material out for condemnation for not fitting an agenda when it suits. Either the argument is that movies don’t influence people or it isn’t; you can’t have it both ways. Really, Death Wish’s problem is that it’s merely serviceable. Perhaps if Alexander and Karaszweski had administered a page-one rewrite, we’d really have something to talk about. Oh, and how about they write a movie for Willis and Norris as jocular brothers? That might raise a few laughs.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism