Guilty Pleasure No. 37: Death Wish (dir by Eli Roth)


Is it finally safe to honestly review Death Wish?

You may remember that this film, a remake of the 70s vigilante classic, came out last March and critics literally went insane attacking it.  That it got negative reviews wasn’t necessarily a shock because the movie was directed by Eli Roth and he’s never been a favorite of mainstream critics.  Still, it was hard not to be taken aback but just how enraged the majority of the critics appeared to be.  Seriously, from the reviews, you would have thought that Death Wish was not just a bad movie but a crime against nature.

Of course, a lot of that was due to the timing of the film’s release.  The film was released less than a month after the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.  At the time the film first came out, the country was in the midst of a daily diet of anti-second amendment rallies and David Hogg.  Many critics accused Death Wish of being a commercial for the NRA.  Others branded the film as being right-wing propaganda.  In fact, the criticism was so harsh that it was hard not to feel that the critics were essentially taking Death Wish far more seriously than it took itself.

If anything, Death Wish is a big, glossy, and rather silly movie.  Bruce Willis stars as Dr. Paul Kersey.  Paul is a peace-loving man.  We know this because he refuses to get into a fight with a belligerent parent at a soccer game.  He’s also an emergency room doctor, the type who pronounces a policeman dead and then rushes off to try to save the life of whoever shot him.  No one in the movie suspects that Paul would ever become a vigilante but we know that there’s no way he can’t eventually end up walking the streets with a loaded gun because he’s played by Bruce Willis.  When Paul backs down from the fight at the soccer game, Willis delivers his dialogue with so much self-loathing that we just know that, once Paul gets back home, he’s going to lock himself in the basement and start yelling at the walls, Stepfather-style.

Eventually, criminals break into Paul’s house and shoot both his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and his daughter (Camila Morrone).  His wife dies.  His daughter ends up in a coma.  Paul spends a day or two in shock and then he promptly gets a gun and starts shooting criminals.  Eventually, this brings him into conflict with the same criminals who attacked his family!  Meanwhile, two detectives (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) look at all the dead bodies piling up around them and just shrug it off.  At one crime scene, Norris is happy to grab a slice of pizza.

And really, that’s it.  It sounds simple because it is simple.  There is absolutely no narrative complexity to be found in Death Wish, which is why, in its own cheerfully crude way, the film totally works.  In real life, of course, vigilante justice is not the solution and the death penalty is often unfairly applied but, from the moment the opening titles splash across the screen, Death Wish makes clear that it has no interest in real-life and, throughout its brisk running time, it literally seems to be ridiculing anyone in the audience who might be worried about the moral ramifications of a citizen gunning down a drug dealer.

Death Wish is a big extravagant comic book.  It takes Paul one scene to go from being a meek doctor to being an expert marksman and, when Paul dispatches one criminal by dropping a car on him, Roth lays on the gore so thick that he almost seems to be daring us to take his film seriously.  By that same token, Paul kills a lot of people but at least they’re all really, really bad.  In fact, the criminals are so evil that you can’t help but suspect that Roth is poking a little bit of fun at the conventions of the vigilante genre.  Even the fact that Willis wanders through the entire film with the same grim expression on his face feels like an inside joke between the director and his audience.

The critics were right when they called Death Wish a fantasy but they were wrong to frame that as somehow being a flaw.  It’s a cartoonishly violent and deeply silly film and yet, at the same time it’s impossible not to cheer a little when Paul reveals that he’s been hiding a machine gun under his coffee table.  It’s an effective film.  Eli Roth delivers exactly what you would expect from a film about Bruce Willis killing criminals in Chicago.  It may not be a great film but it works.

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan
  29. On the Line
  30. Wolfen
  31. Hail Caesar!
  32. It’s So Cold In The D
  33. In the Mix
  34. Healed By Grace
  35. Valley of the Dolls
  36. The Legend of Billie Jean

Playing Catch-Up: Spotlight (dir by Tom McCarthy)


Spotlight

Earlier today, I finally got to see Spotlight, the film that is currently the front-runner to win the Oscar for best picture.  Spotlight tells the story of how the Spotlight team, a group of journalists working for the Boston Globe, investigated the shameful history of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.  Starting with charges against one priest, the Spotlight team eventually uncovered sexual abuse by at least 70 priests and also revealed that the revered Cardinal Law was involved in covering up the crimes.

Having now seen Spotlight, I can say it’s a good film.  It’s well-made.  It’s well-acted.  The script contains some memorable lines.  I’ve talked to a few friends of mine who have actually worked as journalists and they have all assured me that Spotlight gets the details of their profession correct and that it’s pretty much an authentic look at what it’s like to be a reporter at a major newspaper.  There’s a lot of good things that can be said about Spotlight.

And yet, I’m not particularly enthusiastic about it.  I think my main issue with the film is that it’s just such an old-fashioned and rather conventional film.  It’s a throw back of sorts, an earnest exploration of a real-life outrage.  (Even the fact that the heroes are journalists makes the film feel as if it was made a decade or two in the past.)  On the one hand, you have to respect that director Tom McCarthy had the guts to tell his story in the least flashy way possible.  But, occasionally, his by-the-book approach is not as compelling as you want or need it to be.  Spotlight is a good film but it’s not a particularly challenging film and it’s the films that challenge us that truly stay with us after the final credits conclude.

Yes, it’s a good film but some are declaring that Spotlight is the best film of the year and I’m afraid that I just don’t see it.  There are a lot of 2015 films that will probably still be fondly remembered 5 years from now: Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, Sicario, and others.  When compared to those films, Spotlight feels more like an admirable made-for-TV movie.  It feels more like something that should sweep the Emmys than the Oscars.

That said, Spotlight does feature some excellent performances.  In fact, the entire cast does such a good job that it’s difficult to really single anyone out.  They come together as a nearly perfect ensemble.  (That said, I’m a bit torn on whether Mark Ruffalo came across as being passionate or merely mannered.)  Michael Keaton, especially, does a good job, embodying everyone’s ideal image of a journalist with integrity.

Spotlight‘s a good film but my favorite Tom McCarthy movie remains Win Win.