‘Death Wish’ Film Review: Bruce Willis’ Revenge Served Tepid by Eli Roth

Roth’s boringly violent do-over of the Charles Bronson vigilante franchise is too empty-headed and winking to stoke real outrage

The NRA would have you believe that the answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But what about a bad movie with a gun? There will surely be those who approach Eli Roth’s updated “Death Wish” — with Bruce Willis taking over outlaw-justice duties for Charles Bronson — as the fantasy balm of righteous violence they need after the headline horrors of so many mass killings.

But is an upstanding man turned instant vengeance machine, who slays only the right criminals, who never hits a bystander, really the message our roiling gun-debate conversation needs right now? Especially when packaged as warmed-over, ’80s-style Schwarzenegger Lite with Roth-ian splashes of looky-looky gore?

Despite its initial success in a gritty era of urban-nightmare thrillers, there’s now only one way to take in the original 1974 movie: as the story of a serial killer’s awakening. Bronson’s leftie-architect-turned-heat-packing-reactionary, his grief warped by a violent sexual assault that kills his wife and psychologically shatters his daughter, simply starts gunning down muggers who are rarely any harm to him, and the movie begged you to get savage pleasure from the cold, racial, artless deliberativeness of it.

Paul Kersey, as stoically rendered by Bronson, may have appealed to audiences at the time as a civilian Dirty Harry, and by the fourth loony sequel as a geriatric Rambo, but now? He’s just the inspiration for the world’s George Zimmermans.

When you cast Willis, though — as a Chicago doctor who goes from saving bullet-riddled gang members on the operating table to plugging them with lead in broad daylight — you get a tried-and-true combo of decent acting chops and action-hero panache that, strangely enough, helps in leeching this version of even zeitgeisty outrage. (Chicago’s real murder problems are, for once, the perfect Hollywood gloss.)

This one’s strictly a shoot-‘em-up, and only an average one at that. And since we’re already cartoon-sensitized to payback slaughter by “John Wick” (over a dog, no less), there’s something almost disingenuous about how much time this “Death Wish” takes establishing its family-tragedy bona fides before soliciting hoots, hollers and applause from Willis’s street-cleansing escapades. “John Wick” had athletic style to go with its operatic brutality. The rebooted “Death Wish” is a box-checked order form.

The set-up, adapted from Brian Garfield’s novel this time around by Joe Carnahan, couldn’t be simpler. After a home invasion by three masked gunmen leaves his wife (Elisabeth Shue, on screen all too briefly) shot dead and his college-bound daughter (Camila Morrone) in a coma, surgeon Paul Kersey (Willis) spirals into depression.

He’s not only a man who couldn’t protect his family, but he also feels helpless at the inability of the detectives (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise, oddly paired) to make any headway in catching the criminals. Watching his rural father-in-law (Len Cariou) fire his rifle at poachers, then seeing a beautiful blonde on TV hawk a gun shop, suggests a way out of his funk.

Using a swiped firearm from a shot gangbanger needing emergency surgery, and wearing discarded hoodies from the hospital’s laundry bin, Kersey prowls Chicago’s streets. After his inaugural killing of two carjackers, a witness’s phone video goes viral and he’s labeled The Grim Reaper. The movie’s lip service to vigilantism’s downsides amounts to a wound on Kersey’s left hand (guns recoil, ouch!), later a bullet graze (the physician can heal himself), and repeatedly inserted snippets of various radio deejays — both white and black — arguing different sides of the issue. (See, balance!)

Never addressed, though, is the racial truism that if an anonymous, hoodie-shrouded person of color from a poor neighborhood were dispensing street justice, he’d hardly be labeled a “guardian angel” or people’s hero. He might not even be covered by the media. But that kind of truth-telling would just harsh this movie’s NRA-friendly buzz.

Though this superficially slicker, violence-as-punchline “Death Wish” is a genre-familiarized eye-roll of irresponsibility compared to the insidious politics of the 1974 film, there’s still no emotional equivalent here to the scene where Bronson gets physically sick after his first kill. That moment at least acknowledged some form of gut check before the endorphin rush. But as soon as Willis deploys his trademark smirk, and the comfortable vengeance of tracking down his wife’s killers while avoiding detection takes over, it just becomes a million other B-movies about lowlifes getting what they deserve.

Another nod to caution comes when a news segment references a fed-up middle-aged family man tragically killed trying to copycat Kersey’s crime-stopping ways. Kersey’s non-response, having just dispatched an unrepentant baddie by medically torturing him before dropping a jacked-up car on his head, is this “Death Wish” in a nutshell. Nice try, bumming me out with “consequences.”

It’s anyone’s guess if the nation’s newly politicized, gun-control-hungry teenagers will be a decisive demographic in this movie’s box office fate. But as I left the screening for “Death Wish,” one middle-aged white guy barked out over the credits, “God bless the NRA! Arm the teachers!” Trigger warning, indeed.