Ripping-off the 1974 Charles Bronson film, we have Bruce Willis as a Chicago surgeon named Paul Kersey, who’s a loving husband to his wife, Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) and caring father to his college-bound daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone). Living in a posh upper-class neighborhood, void of any home-security systems (’cause that would be silly), Lucy and Jordan are viciously attacked one night while dad is off at work. Lucy dies, Jordan is in a coma and Paul, along with his concerned brother Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio), try to make sense of it all.
Local police detectives Rains & Jackson (Dean Norris & Kimberly Elise) are on the case, but after weeks go by, Paul isn’t hopeful about them finding the men responsible. Frustrated, mad, and then beaten up by some muggers, Paul decides to take matters into his own hands using Mr. Glock. Wearing a hoodie, he gets videotaped taking out some car-jackers, which goes viral, making him get dubbed The Grim Reaper vigilante, by local radio talk show hosts. But Paul, not really interested that much in cleaning up the streets from drug dealers, thieves, punks, and hoodlums, only wants the scum that terrorized his wife and daughter.
Catching some fantastic and coincidental breaks, he gets clues as to the whereabouts of the three guys who did his home invasion and decides it’s payback time! Wearing his signature hoodie he goes out at night for revenge, while Rains & Jackson slowly close in on who they think might be The Grim Reaper. Screenwriter Joe Carnahan, who adapted the book, knows a thing or two about movies & guns, having penned films like Smokin’ Aces and Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane. One thing is for sure, this movie is a love letter to the NRA with all the joy it gets outta showing off its weaponry. Side note: this movie was supposed to have been released way before all the recent shootings.
The story, such as it is, is very straight-forward, with no twists, turns, mcguffins, red herrings, or side plots which is not only odd, but a throwback to its 70’s film roots. Not that that is a bad thing, but the way this plot is presented lends itself to those alternatives, which makes you disappointed when it doesn’t happen! There are scenes that set up a possible twist, but nothing happens; there should be climatic ending, but there isn’t, you want there to be some jarring secret that’ll pop-up at the end for a really cool ‘gotcha’ moment, alas, there is zilch. There were SO many opportunities to turn this mediocre script into something better and Carnahan wasted it.
Director Eli Roth, a terrific actor on his own, has a penchant for gore-galore in his movies (Cabin Fever, both Hostel films), and here he shows off his strengths and weaknesses. Roth has a keen eye for camera movement and placement, not to mention his talent (??) for shooting truly grisly and bloody deaths. Yuckk! He really should focus on his storytelling, as many of the plot holes and deus ex machinas could have been fixed. Especially the questionable brother Frank character that serves what purpose exactly? Still, good ol’ Bruce Willis isn’t doing his charge-at-’em, gung-ho officer John McClain bit, but more of a thoughtful, reflective David Dunn (from Unbreakable). And for once, this movie actually has a happy ending that doesn’t signal a sequel. Or… does it?
Just like in the song, Murder By Numbers by the Police, the lyrics go: “Once that you’ve decided on a killing/ First you make a stone of your heart”. And whether you’re taking out terrorists or your garden variety NYC street thug, the same is essentially true. Just ask NYC architect Paul Kersey, played to perfection by granite-faced actor, Charles Bronson.
Living in seedy Manhattan with his wife (Hope Lange) and daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) isn’t easy, especially after three low-life’s kill Paul’s wife and leave Carol catatonic in the hospital. Enraged that the police won’t/can’t help catch the perpetrators, Paul gets an idea while on vacation in Tucson, Arizona. He sees an old-fashioned gunfight and Western justice. The fact that his shooting skills are damn good is a bonus! Back home in NYC, Paul goes out one night and shoots a mugger. Surprised at how easy it was, he gets a taste for killin’ and indulges himself almost every night. Central Park, dark alleys, the subway, the whole city is his lethal playground.
Meanwhile, the entire city is gripped with talk of vigilantes and police Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is assigned to find the killer–even with his constant (*achoo!*) cold. As the killings go up, Frank is getting closer to who he thinks might be pulling the trigger, and finally gets a break that leads him to Paul. But just as Frank has Paul dead-to-rights, a problem occurs: the D.A. and the Police Commissioner don’t want the public to know. Why? Because street crime has dropped dramatically since Paul became a vigilante. Arrest Paul? Nawww… that will just make him a martyr to the people. What to do then? Get him out of town… quietly and permanently!
Unfortunately, while Paul is gunning down some bad guys in Central Park, he’s shot by one of the thugs. Frank goes to the hospital and gives Paul an ultimatum… leave town or ELSE! Paul decides to go to Chicago and, wouldn’t ya know it, he sees some hoodlums in the airport lobby. Pointing his finger at them (like a gun), we are left with only questions. But not really. The Death Wish franchise continued with four more sequels, each one starring Bronson as Kersey, and each one getting more silly & ridiculous in their plot as they progressed.
Adapted by Wendell Mayes from the novel, this movie glorified vigilantism instead of denouncing it, as in the book. Director Michael Winner and Bronson made at least six films together (Death Wish 2 & 3, The Mechanic, Chato’s Land), this being the first entry. Check out the overly synthesized 70’s musical score by a young Herbie Hancock and very young actors Christopher Guest (Princess Bride), Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park), Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck), and others making their film debut.