Kevin: If you somehow own the copyright on the word “problematic” then you are likely a multi-millionaire after last week, as that particular descriptor probably appeared in at least 97 percent of the articles about the new “Death Wish” trailer. Tough Guy Digest will leave it to others to debate the appropriateness of celebrating a white vigilante in these current times, because as Bruce Willis superfans (it’s no coincidence John McClane is the first thing you see when clicking on our site), we are more focused on the fact that the remake of the Charles Bronson classic is finally putting Bruce back on the big screen after an extended period in the Video-on-Demand wilderness.
Because as hard as it is to remember now, earlier this decade Bruce appeared to be entering a very exciting and creative phase of his career. He reminded everyone of his funny and romantic side in the sleeper hit “Red,” was the heart and soul of Wes Anderson’s critically adored “Moonrise Kingdom,” gave us action fans a thrill by joining Arnold and Sly in the “Expendables” films, and most importantly took a risk and challenged himself in Rian Johnson’s “Looper,” and in the process delivered a powerful and layered performance that should have at least nabbed him an Oscar nomination.
But rather than continue seeking out interesting projects and unique filmmaking voices, Bruce promptly sleepwalked through a couple of mediocre “Die Hard” and “Red” sequels before getting seduced by the easy money and even easier filming schedules of films that almost entirely bypassed theaters and went straight to video and DVD. Considering that Bruce was replaced on “Expendables 3” after demanding $1 million a day for four days work, it’s no stretch to imagine that’s the kind of payday and schedule he was getting used to with these kinds of movies. And his recent output has done nothing to rebut Stallone’s tweet at that time calling the star “GREEDY AND LAZY.”
If you are like me, you’ve probably been tricked at least once into renting one of these because it seemed to promise Bruce in a major role, but instead he likely only had a handful of scenes, while someone like Kellan Lutz or Mark-Paul Gosselaar did the heavy lifting (Den of Geek has a good rundown of these films here). The 2012 thriller “Fire with Fire” is a typical example: While the poster features Bruce as prominently as Josh Duhamel and Rosario Dawson, in the actual film he shows up only occasionally, almost all his scenes appear to be filmed in the same police station location, and most of his acting is done at a desk over the phone (my god, I just realized he literally phoned in his performance!).
We can only pray that “Death Wish” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” – a sequel to both “Unbreakable” and the recent “Split” that’s due to arrive in early 2019 – signal an end to this unfortunate phase of Bruce’s career. But before we get into our thoughts on the new “Death Wish” trailer, I figured I’d check out two of his most recent straight-to-video offerings to see what he is hopefully leaving behind:
As usual with his VOD output, Bruce is in a supporting role while Hayden Christensen takes the lead, with the former Skywalker using his midi-chlorian power at the beginning to make millions as some sort of wealth manager I guess (we briefly get a shot of him in his office saying, “I’m already down $8 million on oil today because some blogger says China is going big on solar;” once again Hollywood has no idea how money is made in the real world). Also in typical movie fashion, his wife is upset that busting his ass to keep his family living in luxury requires more than 20 hours a week at the office, so he makes it up to her by taking his son on his first deer hunt.
(Not knowing anything about this movie going in, I started to think we were heading into some territory where Christensen goes insane from all the stress and tries to hunt his son instead. Even when trying to portray a loving dad the actor always seems slightly creepy and sinister, which is why his infamous “I don’t like sand” monologue just made you want to see Padme file an intergalactic restraining order.)
Instead he and his son witness a murder over a disagreement about a stolen bag of money, which Christensen has to find in order to get his kid back. Bruce shows up as a cop, which is one of the two roles he usually plays in these movies in addition to “crime boss” (since both allow him to stay in one location and bark orders at people), but for a change he is a major part of the film in the second half and actually gets into the action. He does however wear the same uniform the entire movie, I’m guessing so that he could film all his scenes in like two days and then split.
Either way, if nothing else “First Kill” looks good, is never boring, and Bruce keeps you on your toes about whether he is a good guy or not. The movie at least barely exceeded my rock-bottom expectations, which is more than I can say for Bruce’s other recent trip to the VOD well:
“Once Upon a Time in Venice”
On paper “Once Upon a Time in Venice” should easily be Bruce’s best VOD movie by a country mile: he appears in almost every scene and is actually engaged with the material, he’s surrounded by a very solid supporting cast (John Goodman, Jason Momoa, Adam Goldberg, Famke Janssen, “Silicon Valley’s” Thomas Middleditch), and it gives Bruce his first comedic role in what feels like ages. Unfortunately, while it desperately desires to be a funny and edgy private eye flick like “The Nice Guys,” instead of Shane Black we have the writers behind the laugh-free Willis-Tracy Morgan comedy “Cop Out,” which if nothing else gave Kevin Smith a lot of anti-Bruce material to regale his fans with at his neverending Q&A circle-jerks.
I guess the main plot of “Once Upon a Time in Venice” is Bruce’s attempts to retrieve his dog after it’s been stolen by a gangbanger played by Momoa (who between this and the recent “The Bad Batch” should never again attempt a Hispanic accent), although this particular storyline doesn’t kick in until more than half an hour into the film. Bruce’s character has to come up with $4,000 to get the dog back, which he does by borrowing it from a loan shark who apparently violently kills everyone he gives money to if they don’t pay it back within a day (how does this dude stay in business?).
But even with such ridiculously manufactured stakes the movie just sort of moves from one scene to the next with zero forward momentum, while talented actors are put in scenarios that should be funny but aren’t (although just to give you an idea of what to expect, two of the movie’s biggest attempts at laughs involve Bruce escaping from some bad guys by riding a skateboard naked and then later dressing up as a woman). And despite the talent involved, it also contains all the worst VOD hallmarks: drab visuals, the same few locations used repeatedly, constant narration as a narrative crutch, a couple of scenes that were obviously supposed to be set to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” but instead feature an embarrassingly cheap “sound-a-like.”
Worst of all though is something I’ve never seen before in even the most low-budget Bruce VOD joint: someone else dubbing some of Bruce’s dialogue. It happens at least twice in the movie, once when someone who is supposed to be Bruce says something to Middleditch’s character over the phone, and then near the end when this “Mystery Bruce” takes over his lines off-screen right in the middle of a monologue. Like I had to rewind the movie because I was confused about who this new person was who just started talking when they cut away from Bruce, before I realized that it was supposed to still be Bruce.
This is seriously the kind of crap you only expect to see in a cheap, filmed-in-Bulgaria Steven Seagal flick. The guy doesn’t even sound anything like Bruce; they would have been better off going with the “Mr. Falcon” dude from the legendary “Die Hard 2” edited-for-television version:
Now there could be any number of reasons for this, but if Bruce didn’t want to be bothered to come into the studio to do a little ADR for his own movie then that certainly doesn’t help his current image as an actor who doesn’t exactly give it his all. But as we said earlier, TGD is hoping that’s about to change, starting with “Death Wish” this November:
This new version has had a bumpy path to the screen, as original writer-director Joe (“A-Team” “The Grey”) Carnahan – who envisioned a more nuanced and thoughtful take on the notion of revenge (yeah I know, sounds fucking boring to me too) – departed due to the studio’s insistence on casting Willis. After a few unknown directors came and went, the job finally went to Eli Roth, who if nothing else has a distinctive cinematic vision, even if that vision has given us garbage like “The Green Inferno” and “Knock Knock” lately.
Although despite Carnahan vacating the director’s chair, the fact that he has sole writing credit indicates that a fair amount of his original screenplay is in the final film, which perhaps accounts for the schizophrenic nature of the trailer. The beginning seems to sell this new “Death Wish” as just as dark and gritty as the original:
While the end of the trailer sells it as an over-the-top shoot-‘em-up like “Death Wish 4: The Crackdown”:
Either way, the overall message the marketing department seems to be conveying is that this story of how an ordinary man’s life is turned upside down after his wife is brutally murdered is gonna be a fun time at the movies! And you know what, I’m fine actually fine with that. We’ve had more than enough revenge movies that ask us to cheer our hero’s bloodlust before scolding us with a last-minute lecture about the price of vengeance on a man’s soul. This new “Death Wish” may turn out to be completely tone deaf and exactly the wrong kind of movie for our current times, but if we start seeing a lot of outraged hot takes in the media following its release, that will mean that if nothing else it was an effective piece of cinema.
Before we conclude, do any of ya’ll have thoughts on “Death Wish” after seeing the trailer?
CJ: After re-watching this, it pains me to say that this looks awful. All of Bruce’s lines sound like him when he doesn’t want to be in the movie, and like Kevin touched on, it’s very weird how the tone shifts mid-trailer. Specifically, the shrink compliments Bruce on getting out and socializing more, and everyone gets a good laugh over what is essentially murder. I also never know with Eli Roth; I feel like he always holds the promise of some excellent violence and gore, and then you get one or two eyes gouged out and then lots of inane talking or crying. Boo!
That being said, of course I will see this opening night. It’s Bruce, “Death Wish” is awesome, and I have to assume my apprehensiveness has more to do with the fact that the people who make trailers usually don’t know what they are doing.
Speaking of Bruce and his night gig as a VOD kingpin, I realized something which surprised me. When looking at the recent career paths of the Holy Trinity (Willis, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger), would anyone have guessed that Stallone would be having the best career right now among the three? Willis has more or less been doing the whole “I’ll take any role that I can film from my house” thing, Arnold is making some interesting but barely seen stuff like “Maggie” and “The Last Stand” (although Mike would disagree), while Stallone is arguably peaking with the “Expendables” franchise, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Creed,” “Rambo,” and another potential Oscar nomination as director coming up. Never would I have picked Sly out of those three a few years ago. His manager deserves a raise!
Kevin: I’ll note though that Sly has two potential VOD movies coming up, an action film with Jackie Chan and an “Escape Plan” sequel, both of which seem primarily geared to the Chinese market. While I don’t begrudge Sly the payday, he needs to heed Bruce’s example and make sure that the occasional VOD film here or there doesn’t become his entire cinematic resume after a while.
Going back to Bruce though, I will say I’m cautiously optimistic about “Death Wish” after reading a very positive assessment of a recent screening by David J. Moore, author of the essential action movie compendium “The Good, the Tough & the Deadly” (scroll down to the comments on this post by Outlaw Vern to see Moore’s thoughts on the film). Although at this point you’d think some soul-searching is in order when the biggest compliment a Bruce Willis fan can give is basically along the lines of “yeah he looked awake for most of the film and actually seemed like he wanted to be there.”
I guess we’ll have to see for ourselves when the film is released November 22nd, but if the remake includes an homage to “Death Wish 3” in which Bruce guns down a character named “The Giggler” then I will pay to see this multiple times in the theater just on general principle:
Post Script: If you need a really good revenge movie to help get you through the wait until “Death Wish” then you should check out 2010’s “Harry Brown,” in which Michael Caine plays a London pensioner who takes the law into his own hands when his old war buddy is killed by punks who have been terrorizing his apartment building. The movie delivers everything you could want based on the premise of Michael Caine doling out violent punishment to obnoxious millennials, including a scene in which he tries to buy a gun from some drug-addled criminals that is a master-class in tension and suspense:
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