Last week I received an email taking issue not with my review of the horror film “Annihilation,” but with the publicity still that ran alongside it in print. Shaken, as many of us were, by news of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the reader wasn’t thrilled to be confronted with the image of Natalie Portman and her co-stars wielding military-grade weapons. “Where,” he asked, “is the sense of social outrage at the merchandising and embrace of this sick garbage?”
A worthy question if also, in this case, a misdirected one. The gun violence depicted in “Annihilation,” committed in self-defense by trained professionals navigating a disaster zone, is the opposite of gratuitous. The movie itself, an unusually cerebral and imaginative addition to the science-fiction annals, doesn’t begin to descend to the level of sick garbage. Hollywood does have a violence problem, but not all depiction is glorification, and our outrage is usually best deferred until after we’ve bothered to see what’s being depicted.
None of which should be taken as a recommendation that you subject yourself to “Death Wish,” a gore-slicked update of the 1974 Charles Bronson vigilante thriller that launched numerous sequels, countless imitators and delusional revenge fantasies everywhere — including those of our current president, who, on the campaign trail in 2015, invoked the movie admiringly in defense of the 2nd Amendment. “Today you can’t make that film,” he said, “because it’s not politically correct!”
Apparently you can. If the arrival of a feature-length National Rifle Assn. infomercial starring Bruce Willis and a large supporting cast of firearms seems ill advised in the wake of Parkland and a vital national conversation on gun control, it’s worth pointing out that the movie was originally set for a November 2017 release, only to be delayed in the wake of October’s Las Vegas shootings. The real America, it would seem, is peddling violent spectacle at a rate far in excess of Hollywood, a situation that shows little sign of abating anytime soon.
In any event, to criticize “Death Wish” for its indelicate timing would be to suggest that there might ever be an appropriate moment to see it. Directed by Eli Roth with the same knowing smirk that has informed his previous exercises in self-satisfied bloodletting (“Cabin Fever,” “The Green Inferno,” the “Hostel” movies), the movie is a slick, straightforward revenge thriller as well as a sham provocation, pandering shamelessly to the viewer’s bloodlust while trying to pass as self-aware satire. Your time, to say nothing of your outrage, is much better spent elsewhere.
Bronson’s Paul Kersey is now Willis’ Dr. Paul Kersey, a Chicago-based surgeon who sees gunshot victims on a daily basis. But he isn’t prepared for the latest two to be his loving wife, Lucy (Elisabeth Shue), and their teenage daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone), whom we see being assaulted during a home burglary gone awry — a horribly upsetting sequence and an irritating reminder that Roth can still generate screw-tightening dread when he lets the spirit move him.
The rest of it is all heat-packing fun and games. Roughly echoing the original film and Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel (adapted here by Joe Carnahan), the wife dies while the daughter remains in a coma. Paul is left to fester in his grief and rage — or, in Willis’ interpretation, to pass a bothersome but short-lived kidney stone — while a pair of detectives (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) try in vain to track down the perps responsible.
“If a man really wants to protect what’s his, he has to do it for himself.” Those words are spoken by the great Len Cariou, not, alas, reprising his famous performance as Sweeney Todd (perhaps the greatest of all fictional vigilantes), but instead taking on the slightly less incongruous role of Paul’s rifle-toting father-in-law.
Soon thereafter Paul acquires his own handgun and begins learning to use it, none too expertly. One night he steps out in a gray hoodie and stops a carjacking, killing the two thugs behind the wheel but also injuring himself in the process.
At this point you might ask yourself which, exactly, is less convincing: Willis playing a surgeon, or Willis playing someone who’s clumsy with a gun? The answer hardly matters. This “Death Wish” may use Chicago as a crime-riddled backdrop, in much the same way the earlier movie exploited 1970s New York, but in truth it occupies a bizarre, ugly parallel reality where every angry middle-class dude is just a few training montages away from unleashing his inner John McClane.
In this world, the hoodie, a significant emblem of the Black Lives Matter movement, has been idiotically repurposed as a white man’s carapace. (Pointedly, black actors have been broadly cast here as cops, criminals, victims and radio commentators, a choice that does nothing to relieve the movie of its own oblivious privilege.) After an eyewitness video of this unidentified killer goes viral, “the Grim Reaper” becomes Paul’s crime-fighting alias, spurring a vigorous local debate on the morality of vigilante justice.
“Death Wish” is littered with these bogus little stabs at self-critique — including an online gun-store commercial that’s just appalling enough to seem lifted from actual reality — but it all feels like a coy put-on, a glib distraction from the bloody business at hand. For those who know and crave what they’re signing up for, the sight of Paul recklessly hunting down his family’s attackers — unlike Bronson’s Paul, who spent his movie picking off random muggers — will have its desired effect.
I’m not sure if it weakens the movie’s thrust that some especially choice moments of retribution have nothing to do with firearms at all (notwithstanding an uncensored reference to the AR-15, the rifle used in the Parkland shooting). The audience I was with duly whooped and hollered at the sight of Paul making splattery use of a car grille, and they winced appreciatively as he put his medical expertise to work in a scene that reconfirms Roth as one of our most skilled torture-porn practitioners.
As it happens, this “Death Wish” was rendered irrelevant years ago by James Wan’s little-seen “Death Sentence” (2007), a tense, visceral and fascinatingly conflicted thriller starring Kevin Bacon as another grieving father who takes vengeance into his own hands — and, unlike Willis’ character, goes on to reap the consequences. It was adapted from another Garfield novel, one that he wrote out of disgust at the way the 1974 movie had warped his original point.
If “Death Sentence” offers something of a corrective to the “Death Wish” mythos, it’s one I recommend cautiously, and at the risk of perpetuating a fallacy about violent entertainment that those of us who write about Hollywood sometimes fall back on too readily. I’m not sure what the antidote to a bad movie with a gun is, but a good movie with a gun can go only so far.
Rating: R, for strong bloody violence, and language throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: In general release