Sometimes Bruce Willis and over-the-top screen violence are perverse, transgressive fun. Think of him running around on his bloody, glass-cut feet and mowing down a platoon of cocky Euro-baddies in “Die Hard.” Or killing John Travolta on the john in “Pulp Fiction.” And later, having escaped imprisonment in a creepy pawnshop, quietly weighing the lethal capacity of every weapon in stock before deciding to kill his kidnappers with a samurai sword. Those scenes were beautifully underplayed by Willis, giving the screen slaughter a comic edge.
Clearly they were aiming for something similar in the remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson thriller “Death Wish.”
Clearly they blew it.
Willis plays Paul Kersey, a prominent Chicago surgeon who treats emergency arrivals. That keeps him pretty busy, what with the metropolitan shootings running at the level of a hot war zone.
So when several burglars enter the Kersey residence, we may ponder why, since they were coming at a time when they expected the family to be away, leaving no one to open the safe. We also may question why the prosperous Kerseys didn’t invest in security alarms or even door locks.
One thing we know for sure is that after the criminals leave the blood from his wife and teenage daughter around his home, Kersey is going to start making house calls of his own.
Hiding his identity under a hoodie, he begins walking the streets, creating carnage against street punks unrelated to his family’s attack. He has stitched up enough gunshot wounds. It’s time to make some! And he’s not just applying personal justice, he’s addicted to using his skills with life and death in a ruthless new way. He’s grinning and enjoying it, and the film wants us to enjoy it as well.
In short order he becomes a vigilante hero on social media, “The Grim Reaper,” whose exploits are debated on talk radio. In the current climate of concern about rampant gun violence, this brainless chatter feels irresponsible to a grotesque level.
The filmmakers have done fine work in the past. Screenwriter Joe Carnahan gave us genuine thrills in “Narc” and “The Grey,” while director Eli Roth enjoyably mixed gore and gags in “Cabin Fever” and two “Hostel” movies. Here, neither they or their star plays up to potential.
As Willis moves from grieving family man to urban Rambo — at one point he fires a pistol and machine gun side by side — the film loses its focus and becomes a collection of sadistic sight gags: a death involving slipping on a pool of blood, a conk on the noggin from a falling bowling ball and an accidental shot through the skull — hardly comedy gold.
The silver lining to this ugly cloud is the excellent performance by Vincent D’Onofrio as Kersey’s brother. He’s an ex-con and a low-wage guy, yet a warm, loving member of the family. D’Onofrio flawlessly handles this important role as the heart of the film, always being a believable guy while Willis does every scene like a movie star taking it easy. There are a hundred things wrong with “Death Wish,” but the biggest is that the wrong man is starring in it.