This Is a Movie Review: Eli Roth’s ‘Death Wish’ is Plenty Entertaining If You Don’t Want to Grapple Too Much with Vigilantism’s Complicated Morality

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Takashi Seida/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise, Beau Knapp, Elisabeth Shue, Camila Morrone, Mike Epps

Director: Eli Roth

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: R for Brutal Gunfire and the Corresponding Bloody, Bone-Breaking Injuries

Release Date: March 2, 2018

By Eli Roth standards, Death Wish – a remake of the notorious 1974 Charles Bronson franchise-starter of the same name – is actually rather tame. The director of such modern-day exploitation as Cabin Fever, Hostel, and The Green Inferno has made a career out of pushing buttons, but the most objectionable elements of Death Wish are borrowed from the original. Based on the evidence on display here, I don’t know if Roth is an advocate for vigilantism, or if he even necessarily has any fully formed opinion. But no matter his own personal feelings, the film is plenty confrontational and liable to stir up heated feelings.

The setup is essentially the same as the original: Chicago-based surgeon Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) turns to vigilantism after a robbery by professional burglars leaves his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) dead and his daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) in a coma. He is frustrated by the lack of leads in the case and the constant gang-related violence in his city, so he takes to heart those who bandy about the maxim that police only arrive after the crime has happened. So he procures a gun, dons his hoodie, and does what he can to clean up the streets, initially dispatching the likes of carjackers and soon working his way up to executing career criminals in broad daylight. He becomes a viral sensation, with some calling him the “Guardian Angel,” with others opting for “Grim Reaper.” There are some clear racial overtones, underlined by footage of real talk radio personalities discussing his activity, as Kersey is white and his targets tend to be people of color. But pointedly, he is also protecting many people of color. Admirably, Roth actually lets this issue remain as complicated as it deserves to be, but it could still have been addressed more head-on

When viewed straightforwardly as action movie fish fulfillment, Death Wish is well-crafted, crackerjack entertainment. I cannot deny that I was thrilled, nor can I dispute the comic relief that comes in the form of Vincent D’Onofrio as Paul’s schlubby but loyal younger brother, or Mike Epps as the resident horndog doctor, or just a well-timed gunshot. But naturally enough I find myself hesitant to cheer any movie in which a vigilante is the clear hero. That is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Paul is so clearly a decent person and that everyone he kills is clearly a bad guy. But then that clear demarcation between good and evil makes for its own problems. That stark opposition can work, with Lord of the Rings perhaps the best example.

So I would like to propose a theory of the Uncanny Valley of Realistic Violence, wherein a fantastical setting makes it easier to stomach an inherently good character killing an inherently evil character. But the closer the setting is to reality, the harder the killing is to accept, because the good/evil split is not so easy in real life. Roth flirts with examining that complication, but for the most part he is more interested in being a showman. Despite my problems with Death Wish’s ickiness, I do not feel too compelled to condemn it all that strongly on moral grounds. After all, it is clearly a fantasy, because where else but in the movies would the lead detective (Dean Norris) close the case with a delicious bite of pizza and an equally delicious one-liner?

Death Wish is Recommended If You Like: Eli Roth’s in-your-face style, Bruce Willis downplaying while remaining intense, Comic relief when it might not be appropriate

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Head Shots

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is More Than Just a Tennis Match

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Melinda Sue Gordon/20th Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Alan Cumming, Natalie Morales

Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Running Time: 121 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Systemic Sexism and An Eye-Opening Affair

Release Date: September 22, 2017 (Limited)

The mark of a great biopic is how it transcends its time. It not only illuminates the period it is set in but also the era in which it is released and potentially remains relevant into the future. Battle of the Sexes, a dramatization of the same-named 1973 exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs and the events leading up to it, is filled with social issues that are still urgently pressing in 2017. When you consider the full scope of human history, the fact that a fight to be taken seriously has lasted at least 44 years ultimately does not seem that unprecedented. But it is frustrating regardless, and it is also galvanizing enough to make a crowd-pleasing narrative out of.

As King, Emma Stone must embody a straightforward, but recognizably human, conflict. She struts around with the indomitable spirit of conviction when fighting for women to be treated equally with the men in her sport, but her personal life is searching for the right identity. She instinctively understands that the real roadblock in her professional fight is not her clownish opponent, but rather, folks like ATP Executive Director Jack Kemp (Bill Pullman), who casually reinforces the status quo with subtly aggressive comments like, “the thing about women is they find it hard to consistently handle the pressure.” But of course King can handle the pressure of tennis’ old guard. What she cannot quite handle, at least not yet as a young adult, is her path towards coming to terms with her own sexuality. The presence in this film of a tantalizing but unsettling affair with another woman is crucial, demonstrating that the political is always personal.

As Riggs, Steve Carell reveals that the trolls of today (who couch their racism and sexism with the “I’m just kidding!” defense) come from a long line of deliberate offenders. He is happy to play the male chauvinist pig, but mainly for the purpose of getting eyeballs on his stunts (though he does play the part quite convincingly). But what drives this long-since retired former world number one is not a desire to reinforce the status quo but an inability to give up the hustle. You could roll your eyes at him all you want, but it is hard not to root for him a little bit, because you can actually see how he might be able to be a better human being.

As a compelling story, Battle of the Sexes is undeniably winning. As cinema, it mostly coasts by on that strength but does not add any particularly unique techniques to the inspirational sports genre. The acting is top-notch, the understanding of the subject matter is astute, the pacing is solid, and the attitude is appropriately calibrated. It is not hitting aces with every scene, but its service game is never broken.

Battle of the Sexes is Recommended If You Like: Bend it Like Beckham, Legally Blonde, Cool Runnings, Scheduling your year around the Grand Slam calendar

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Serve and Volleys