Eli Roth's new Death Wish remake suffers from the same awkward indecision as does James Wan's DEATH WISH-adjacent 2007 failure DEATH SENTENCE. Both movies are caught between the competing urges of exploitation and sincerity, a tension which few filmmakers are able to resolve successfully. Roth, however, doesn't even seem to be aware that there is a tension requiring special care.
Roth's updated take on Death Wish, starring Bruce Willis as Paul Kersey, seems to be more influenced by the current trend of dramatically ambitious comic book movies than it is by Michael Winner's original film: it wants to be an earnest drama, like Winner's efficient and internal 1974 adaptation of Brian Garfield's novel, but it not only lacks the social relevance of the original material, it clings too faithfully to the cliches of a genre picture. Roth is adept at sensational gore, and has an enthusiasm for exploitation ideas, but he doesn't integrate them here into a tonally coherent whole. A few moments of wild violence in this Death Wish remake — including one Deus ex Machina by bowling ball — are so over-the-top they could just as easily feature in a Looney Tunes-inspired farce, but these rare blips of creativity clash with the otherwise dutifully sombre atmosphere and soaping up of potentially intriguing ideas.
While it's nice to see Willis back headlining a major release, he's too uncomplicated for a role like Paul Kersey. Charles Bronson is no master Thespian, but he has a determined blankness that allows us detach from Death Wish's overwhelming moral entanglements and contemplate from a distance, as filtered through a man who appears to have shut off a concern with negotiating between impulse and emotion. Willis is both too open and too unconflicted about his character's transformation from healer (he's a doctor this time) to killer. I couldn't help but imagine how different this movie would have been if the more unpredictable and always-suffering Vincent D'Onofrio, who plays Kersey's brother, had been cast in the primary role instead. As it is, however, Roth's Death Wish neither wrestles with vigilantism as a moral/social problem nor fully indulges in the catharsis of its violence to sate an exploitation audience. It just flirts with conflicting styles, and with no sense of how this story could be manipulated to better resonate within the current time and place. Eli Roth's 2018 Death Wish remake is not only disposable compared to the effcient and probing 1974 film, it even pales next to that film's sillier sequels, most of which have a firmer grasp on what they are.