Let’s just get this out of the way: Death Wish is a terrible movie. Eli Roth’s film wholly buys into toxic, hypermasculine ideals that would have felt retrograde 15 years ago. How retrograde is it? Well, Dr. Paul Kersey’s (Bruce Willis) primary flaw is established when a nameless character calls him a “pussy” at a soccer game and he doesn’t start a physical altercation over it. Instead, he keeps his cool and has a nice day with out with his family. Clearly, this is a flawed man who needs fixing. Of course, you know that Paul gets his chance to “man up” when his family is targeted in a home invasion and he fails to protect them. Now, in the words of his gun saleswoman, Bruce has to get “cocked, locked and ready to rock” and prove that he (and by extension the insecure dads in the audience who identify with him) is a real man and not the “pussy” that he is perceived as.
There are elements of Death Wish that gesture towards a satirical takedown of modern culture. Paul learns a comical amount about how to use firearms on Youtube, where he also sees “tactical furniture” advertised (tables, shelves, etc that allow you to hide a gun in them). The woman who sells Paul his first gun is much younger than him, unrealistically gorgeous and flirts with the now 62 year Bruce Willis. In a better movie, these things would be framed in such a way as to ultimately indict the relationship between American culture, masculinity and guns. As the film goes on, it becomes apparent that Roth has no interest in any such indictment. He’s just making a pandering masculine power fantasy at a time where nothing in the world is less appealing. Roth is sensible enough to try and cover his ass by putting in montages of media reactions to Paul’s vigilante activities, but any condemnation is just lip service. Everything works out for Paul, who gets his regressive masculine groove back without any kind of problems or punishment getting in his way.
Despite the repulsive themes of the movie, it could have still worked on a visceral level. Unfortunately, the action scenes are incredibly unengaging, and they mostly just consist of Bruce Willis pointing and firing his gun at various racial caricatures and cartoonish two-dimensional bad guys. Curiously one of the action scenes diverges from the others by veering into slapstick territory for no discernible reason. It’s as if Roth himself realized that he was making a dud and tried to shake things up any way that he could. The home invasion sequence, in which Paul’s family is attacked, contains the only bit of tension in the movie. Unfortunately, the tension comes from piggishly allowing the threat of sexual violence to loom over Paul’s daughter Jordan. Eli Roth, truly a man of class.
The film also fails on a dramatic level. Paul’s family isn’t really made up of characters so much as walking placeholders that talk about how much they love Paul and how great their long, long life is going to be. As such, it’s impossible to feel anything for them. They exist only to be harmed, which paradoxically make it impossible to be sad that they are harmed. Instead, the degree to which the film telegraphs the impending familial violence is tedious and you just end up hoping that it will hurry up and happen already.
Look, there’s enough wrong with Death Wish that I could go on for another thousand words. I could talk about racial issues in the movie (the film’s aesthetic could basically be described as Zimmerman-chic) or I could talk about how unpleasant it was to suffer through yet another zombie-esque Bruce Willis performance. Honestly though, this movie has wasted enough of my time and I won’t let it waste any more of yours. Just see Black Panther again instead, you’ll have a much better time.