Death Wish review: morally indefensible, Eli Roth still delivers the goods

It’s hard to think of a worse time for this movie to come out. Eli Roth’s remake of the vigilante classic is what I imagine George Zimmerman’s favourite NRA TV show is like. Its release now — between the recent Parkland massacre and the upcoming US gun law reform march the school shooting inspired — is a bit like a Harvey Weinstein sex comedy starring Bill Cosby coming out late last year.

However, Roth’s Death Wish is a stripped back, pure cinema experience whose repugnant politics are part of the perverse charm. It’s so utterly stupid that it’s endearing, like pretty much every action film made in the ‘80s; but this has a bunch of modern flourishes thrown in. Most notably, contemporary special gore effects, which are put to use by a director renowned for his excessiveness. Much blood is spilt, some brains are splattered and a neck is savagely broken. But perhaps the most extreme bit of violence is an inventive leg torture technique that has the professional surgeon carrying it out explain explicitly why it’s so effective.

But God, this movie is dumb. The script is simplified to the point of almost being insulting, with characters actually saying things like “I’m happy” and “he’s pissed”. Bruce Willis gives a strangely sleepy performance that’s somehow still less wooden than Charles Bronson in the original. The scenes attempting dramatic oomph may inspire instead giggles or sighs, but nobody goes to a movie called Death Wish expecting a drama.

As well as delivering the goods on the violence front, Roth has put together the extended suspense and action sequences brilliantly. The movie that ties them together is pretty much morally indefensible, yet I can’t deny how much I enjoyed it. Thinking of it as a dark satire about the American psyche makes me feel less dirty about it… but only a little.

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