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Front Page - Friday, March 9, 2018

Critic's Corner: ‘Death Wish’ might leave you wishing you were elsewhere

So much for the Hippocratic Oath. In “Death Wish,” the modern remake of the classic vigilante thriller, Bruce Willis steps into the role of Paul Kersey, a role occupied by Charles Bronson for five films beginning in the 1970s and ending in the ‘90s.

Like the original film, the new movie is based on Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel, although the adaptation must be pretty loose. For instance, in the original “Death Wish” film, Kersey was an architect. This time he’s a trauma surgeon.

Perhaps the creative team behind the remake, which included writer Joe Carnahan and director Eli Roth (“Cabin Fever,” “Hostel”), thought that would add a touch of irony to the character. Then again, that might be giving them too much credit, as the new “Death Wish” is nothing more than a straightforward revenge pic.

Being an ER doctor in Chicago does give Kersey a front row seat to the violence that permeates the city. When we meet him, he seems up to the task of his calling, though, which involves stitching up victims and criminals alike. Perhaps the ability to go home and decompress with his loving wife and college-age daughter gets Kersey through the rougher days.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that a home invasion changes Kersey’s perspective. (The film isn’t called “Death Wish” because he asks for Tres Leches on his birthday.) When his wife is killed, his daughter severely injured during the incident and the detective assigned to the case too overwhelmed to help, Kersey takes to the streets to find those responsible and make sure they pay the ultimate price for their misdeeds.

“Death Wish” starts out strong, with a good scene at the ER setting the stage. In the breathtaking opening shot, the camera swoops down like a bird from the Chicago skyline to follow a speeding police car that’s hauling an injured officer to the nearest ER.

Following the officer takes us to Kersey, who regretfully calls the time of death and then walks off to tend to the shooter.

The family scenes that follow and the home invasion are also well-done. This surprised me because, in the past, the worst thing about Roth’s directing was the fact that he was doing it.

I was stunned when I read that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had given Roth the reins of a “Death Wish” remake, but it appears he’s finally learned how to shoot and edit a scene without looking like a grade schooler with a smart phone.

Roth has not, however, figured out how to direct actors. I don’t think anyone will ever mistake Willis for a serious thespian, but in the hands of the right director, he can deliver a good performance. Just see “Looper” if you think otherwise. But something about his performance in portions of “Death Wish” is off.

The scene in which Kersey learns about his wife’s death is way off. Willis is too dialed down, and I can’t be the only one who thinks those tears look like eye drops.

Maybe I was distracted by how the trails of moisture shifted from shot to shot, but I think Roth should have been brave and asked Willis to go for broke – for something that really nailed how devastated Kersey needs to be.

The lack of strong emotion makes what follows hard to swallow. Kersey doesn’t just search for the creeps who hurt his family; he shoots anyone he sees committing a violent crime – to the point of putting a bullet in the head of an unarmed and injured carjacker.

I understand Kersey’s desire to avenge his family, but what was that about? Considering the groundwork the filmmakers lay in showing Kersey as a lifesaver who’s unfamiliar with guns (there’s a great shot where he flinches as his father-in-law fires a rifle at poachers), this comes across as a big leap.

It’s also where “Death Wish” morphs from a semi-interesting character study to a goofy revenge flick. It was never intended to be anything else, but were the killings in the old movies as silly as the deaths in this one? One involving a dart and a bowling ball would be more at home in a “Final Destination” film.

The movie’s biggest weakness, however, is its reliance on coincidence to propel the story forward. Time and again, the plot moves ahead because the right person is at the right place at the right time to overhear, see or find something. I suppose that’s a flaw with the revenge genre, but “Death Wish” relies too heavily on this cheat.

Even with these issues, “Death Wish” is passably entertaining. If you’re looking for an exploration of the moral implications of revenge killings or the psychological effects of murder, this movie will frustrate and disappoint you. But if all you want to see is a grieving husband and father meting out justice to the tune of AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” you could do worse.