Middle-aged doctor Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis)’s wife is killed and daughter left in a coma after a burglary gone wrong. He immediately leaves behind his life of cowardly non-violence and begins killing scumbag criminals, all of whom definitely deserve to die.

Before it descended into rocket-launching self-parody, and for all its moral scuzziness, Michael Winner’s original Death Wish series at least reflected the very real fact that in the early ’70s American cities could be pretty dangerous places to be after dark. Does this remake arrive to mark a similar epidemic of urban crime descending on the US urban fabric?

Well, most coastal American inner cities are today more likely to be blighted by people trying to press their new podcast on you than enlist you to join the Warriors, progress half-heartedly addressed here by relocating the action to Chicago. The complex socio-economic and racial context of what’s going on there barely gets a look-in, however. This film is far more interested in what amounts to a radicalisation narrative, even if it’s clearly unaware it’s about a domestic terrorist.

Facing this head-on would at least be a more honest take on the material than this toothless, neutered take. At least the original glanced at this path by having Bronson only execute people unconnected with his wife’s killing: after a few warmups where he murders car-jackers and a drug dealer, Willis here becomes more of a Batman figure, cracking the case with a mixture of breaches of medical ethics, implausibly convenient coincidences and director Eli Roth’s signature brand of theatrical torture.

It’s these vanishingly few scenes where Roth’s flair for a macabre set piece really comes alive: one exploding head seems to be full of intestines, which is if anything else anatomically inventive. Elsewhere, Roth seems as neutered as the once-effervescent Willis seems tired. Maybe the material is beyond his talents as a provocateur, with the supporting cast scrupulously racially balanced and the choose-your-interpretation chorus of media talking heads acting as oven gloves sparing the film from actually handling any hot potatoes. Aside from few nods at the ease of getting a gun legally and the bizarreness of these weapons’ babe-heavy advertising, Death Wish 2018 runs a mile before doing anything more than tacitly endorse its hero’s rampage.

Is there anything more abject than a male fantasy of violent revenge? The world is riddled with victims of this perilously common delusion, and there are heaps of interesting films about it. Often the best at least have the stones to consciously try and provoke some bien pensant hand-wringing — unlike this. There’s precious little in DW18 for either the fantasist to be aroused by or the fretter to be appalled by. The Bronson films at least dive into the moral morass: the Willis version barely dips its toe.

Sadly, Donald Trump hasn’t quite found his Leni Riefenstahl: this is a film too embarrassed to be what it is. And shorn of capes and costumes, vigilantism is pretty ugly. Though Roth’s gift for the gruesome gives it a small voyeuristic appeal.

  • Release date
    6 Apr 2018
  • Movie
    Death Wish (2018)
  • ★★