You almost — almost — have to feel sorry for the people behind “Death Wish,” a remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson vigilante film. Originally slated for release late last year, the new movie was bumped into 2018 after a gunman in Las Vegas killed 58 people. It now arrives in theaters in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 people died, and as an inflamed public and concerned businesses finally push back against the National Rifle Association.
But, really, when is a good time these days to open a film that plays like an NRA wet dream? The original “Death Wish” was no classic, but it fed into the fears and discontents of a time when American cities were awash in crime — like it or not, it struck a nerve. By reintroducing a tired macho fantasy to a culture that’s had just about enough of it, the new movie merely strikes out.
It’s proficient enough as B-movie filmmaking goes, mashing the buttons of outrage and bloodlust with dull professionalism. Of course the new “Death Wish” takes place in Chicago, one of the only US cities whose crime rate hasn’t dropped precipitously since the 1970s, and of course Bruce Willis has been cast as Dr. Paul Kersey, the gentle soul who becomes a gun-wielding instrument of justice after his wife (Elisabeth Shue) is killed and his teenage daughter (Camila Morrone) is put into a coma by a trio of home-invading creeps.
The cops on the case (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) are sympathetic but useless, and Paul’s rough-edged brother (an underutilized Vincent D’Onofrio) isn’t much help either. Anyway, we’re here to see Willis be Willis, and it doesn’t take long before the good doctor acquires a Glock and a local-news reputation as the anonymous “Grim Reaper” offing random bad guys. That this badass suburban white guy stalks the city streets in a hoodie while rap music plays on the soundtrack may be meant to be provocative; it simply comes off as clueless. (The villains are mostly white and Hispanic, as if that will deflect the racial anxieties on which the movie and its genre are based.)
The director is Eli Roth, a proud son of Newton who has up to now specialized in being the bad boy of extreme gore with “Hostel” (2005), its 2007 sequel, and 2013’s “The Green Inferno.” By contrast, “Death Wish” feels like work for hire, and only one sequence — a body shop interrogation in which brains get splattered and Paul gets to exercise his skill with a scalpel — has any of Roth’s usual gross-out brio.
The movie’s much more invested in stoking and soothing male insecurities of impotence by vanquishing them with cold steel and live ammo. Early in the film, Paul backs down from a soccer field fight and gets called a “pussy”; by the end, he’s praised for defending his family “like any man would.” A scene where the hero stocks up at a gun shop — staffed exclusively, it seems, by hot blonde saleswomen — plays like a wink-wink come-on meant to restore a wimp’s inalienable right to unleash righteous vengeance.
And right there’s the fantasy: that a lone, honest man with a gun will make the world safer and restore order — will save us from them — rather than just unleash more damage and death. It’s an old man’s fantasy, and maybe it’s not surprising that young people are seeing through it more clearly (and possibly leading us out of it) than anyone else at the moment. “Death Wish” is a catechism for an audience terrified that their firepower and their influence are dwindling.
Directed by Eli Roth. Written by Joe Carnahan. Starring Bruce Willis, Elizabeth Shue, Vincent D’Onofrio, Camila Morrone. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 107 minutes. R (strong bloody violence and language throughout).