Category Archives: Thrillers

Movie Review: “Death Wish”

In general, there are two ways to make a film about vigilantism. One is the straight-up empowerment fantasy, a celebration of man-against-the-odds mayhem that leaves the viewer exhilarated and defiant (Pierre Morel’s “Taken” springs to mind). The second is the tragedy, one that portrays unrestrained violence as an inevitably spiraling cycle of ruin (think James Wan’s “Death Sentence”).

But Eli Roth’s retelling of “Death Wish” charts a third course, hovering unsettlingly between pitiless satire and conventional shoot-‘em-up action. And in a strange way, that’s what makes it memorable.

A loose remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson film, this incarnation centers on Chicago trauma surgeon Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis). When Kersey’s wife and daughter are brutalized by masked attackers during a home invasion, he finds himself wracked with grief over his perceived inability to “protect what’s his.” The antidote: guns and vigilante violence. Leveraging the underworld know-how gained from his day job, Kersey begins a bloody campaign against Chicago’s criminals as he pursues those responsible for the attack on his home.

Certainly, this is a movie that relies heavily on its bloody gun battles (which are, for the most part, well-choreographed). And in this most straightforward, superficial sense, it’s a passable B-movie that might be worth a Redbox rental. But just like Roth’s last film, “The Green Inferno,” there’s definitely more going on here than meets the eye.

There are parts of “Death Wish” that are virtually impossible to interpret as anything other than satirical. At one point, for instance, Kersey strolls into a gun shop. A busty blonde clerk invites him to buy any gun he wants that very day, assuring him that “no one ever fails” their concealed-carry test. A swipe at what Roth perceives to be too-lax gun regulations? Obviously. But Roth’s social critique doesn’t stop there, as he takes jabs at both police bias and the valorization of mass violence on social media.

The real punch of “Death Wish,” though, rests in its pitiless depiction of right-wing ideology unmoored from any moral underpinnings. Kersey doesn’t fight out of any real love or sense of place or tradition, but rather for his people; his wife and daughter are simply members of his tribe that he must defend. (In a particularly garish moment, Kersey even violently reclaims “his stuff” from a pawnshop, leaving corpses in his wake.)

And no transcendent values hold him back. During a funeral service, Kersey defiantly declares that no divine plan can account for his family’s suffering. Shortly thereafter, the camera lingers on a Baptist church poster advertising a gun buyback program—the exact opposite of what Kersey’s interested in. And when police detectives urge him to “have faith” that his family’s attackers will be brought to justice, Kersey stabs an accusing finger at the wall of cold cases behind them. “What did faith do for them?” he snarls. In this profoundly godless “conservatism,” there can be no room for forgiveness or reconciliation: only the lex talionis.

Naturally, the film’s climax, in which Kersey’s home is attacked a second time, plays out in power-fantasy style. This time, Kersey is armed to the teeth, blasting away villain after villain with no legal consequences (and yes, most of them are minorities). It’s an alt-right fever dream, a vision for which Roth clearly has little sympathy.

At bottom, like most of Roth’s films, “Death Wish” is a fairly misanthropic endeavor. Few viewers will inquire into this film’s politics or religious sensibilities: it features Bruce Willis dealing out damage, and that’s good enough for them. Yet I appreciate that Roth’s movies (well, at least some of them) have the nerve to actually say things about culture in an era where mass appeal is the name of the game. For better or worse, there’s more intellectual coherence in “Death Wish” than in last week’s “Annihilation.” And that, in my book, is a curious and sobering thing.

VERDICT: 6.5/10
Not exactly highbrow entertainment, but certainly more than meets the eye.

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Posted by on March 4, 2018 in Thrillers


Movie Review: “Free Fire”

From the first trailer on, I was set on seeing this film: after all, one doesn’t alway get to see an all-out battle royale with automatic weapons in a confined setting. But sadly, this movie should’ve been a whole lot better than it was.

The plot setup’s pretty simple: when an IRA arms deal in an abandoned warehouse goes awry, two groups of criminals (among whom are Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, and Sharlto Copley) promptly find themselves splintered and blasting away at everything in sight—including, all too often, the folks on their own side. As soon as the bullets start flying, everyone hits the floor, crawling behind whatever cover they can find.

Sound fun? I thought so too.

There are a lot of Hollywood legends who probably could’ve pulled this off—Guy Ritchie, Troy Duffy, and obviously Quentin Tarantino all come to mind—but director Ben Wheatley is not one of them. I certainly didn’t think I’d be writing this, but “Free Fire” is criminally boring. Most of this movie is spent watching injured people huddle behind piles of broken concrete. Then somebody moves abruptly, and one or two bullets are fired. Maybe someone gets injured. (Repeat ad infinitum). Maybe this is how sustained gunfights actually work, but in this context, it’s an odd concession to realism, and highlights one of the movie’s biggest flaws: simply put, “Free Fire” plays things far too safe. Just off the top of my head, I can come up with plenty of ways to ratchet up the insanity:

– Fewer pistols and more automatic rifles. And folks need to be firing constantly.
– Carpet the whole floor with spent shell casings. Seriously, carpet it. Have people slipping and sliding on spent brass.
– Pockmark every surface in sight with bullet holes.
– When someone gets injured, they need to do something about it. Maybe they cauterize their injuries with a curling iron or something similarly outlandish.
– Where’s the music? You’d think we could get a little “Don’t Fear (The Reaper)” or “Runnin’ With the Devil” in the background.

All that to say: “Free Fire” really needed to be fun and entertaining, and it’s not.

Other redeeming virtues are hard to come by. Brie Larson is always fun to watch (and the closest thing to a real protagonist this film gets), but by and large, the cast is just a lineup of bullet sponges. I could squint hard and try to come up with some social commentary (maybe it’s a satirical piece about how violent video games are really terrible for the world?) but that’s pushing it. On and on this film drags, despite a short 85-minute runtime, and it only really picks up at the very end.

For all its initial potential, this movie is not worth your time (even when it’s 11pm, you’re cruising through Netflix, and you still have a couple Heinekens and a few pizza slices left). As it so happened, a bit of early dialogue between thugs proved unfortunately ironic:

Gangster #1: “After you get shot, you’ve got about an hour and a half before you bleed out.”
Gangster #2: “Well, how much longer do I have to go?”

That, my friend Gangster #2, was the very same question I asked myself.

“Free Fire”? Try “Free Naptime.”

Normalized Score: 0.0

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Posted by on April 22, 2017 in Thrillers

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