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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.