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March 02, 2018

'Death Wish': Bruce Willis and Eli Roth successfully update a classic

Movie review: New film that opens today is sure to re-spark the debate on gun violence

When the first trailer for the new Bruce Willis-spearheaded "Death Wish" came out, there was much waling and gnashing of teeth. Many considered a remake of the classic 1974 Charles Bronson film, about a man who takes the law into his own hands, as questionable in the age of Black Lives Matter and frequent school shootings.

To the film's credit, it confronts these objections from the very beginning. The previous "Death Wish" was a "product of it's time" and people are nowhere near as scared of crime now.

Well, maybe not in New York, but the film brilliantly opens with radios DJs and news reporters talking about the epidemic of gun crimes in Chicago, where the new film is based. Real-life talk radio celebrities like Mancow are used, to help set up the atmosphere where this film will be taking place.

Also, to it's credit, director Eli Roth uses this technique to discuss the issues a good segment of the public will be discussing.

By confronting and, to a great extent, neutralizing the arguments against it's existence, the film then has to deliver – and it definitely does.

Willis was not the first choice for playing Paul Kersey on the project. Actors ranging from Will Smith to Brad Pitt to Liam Neeson were offered the role. That such a diverse group of actors were considered makes sense, because, in the end, "Death Wish" grants a universal wish that transcends race and age and gender – namely, that justice is done and that one keeps their loved ones safe.

Willis' Kersey couldn't be more different from Bronson's. He's a doctor, not an architect. He also looks a lot more formidable and emotes a bit less.

But Willis' Kersey does come across as a man haunted by the inability to protect his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and daughter (Camila Morrone), who are attacked by gun-wielding thieves in their suburban home. The wife dies, the daughter is put in a coma, and Dr. Paul Kersey is spurred to action.

To Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan's credit, they have Kersey struggle. He has never used a gun before and actually hurts himself the first time he does. They also confront what is sure to be public criticism of Kersey killing a black drug dealer by having a black radio host and his guests debate whether his actions are good or bad.

There are scenes where Kersey interacts with a psychiatrist. The movie would have been slightly better served by expanding these scenes a bit, to really delve into what is making him tick, if he has self-loathing or any remorse.

But that is beside the point in this movie. So is the rest of the cast, ranging from Vincent D'Onofrio, who is great as the down-on-his-luck brother; to Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise, who are serviceable as the two detectives.

The film is about a man seeking to avenge his family and protect the innocent. It makes you care about his journey and may even make you cheer.

Grade: B