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Schultz reviews: "Death Wish" and "Red Sparrow"

Schultz reviews: "Death Wish" and "Red Sparrow"

By Carl Schultz

Daily American correspondent

“Death Wish” Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, 107 Minutes, Rated R, Released March 2:

It doesn’t speak well of our culture that “Death Wish,” a movie which seems to advocate vigilantism through gun violence, is opening across the United States while our nation’s flags are still being displayed at half-staff over the most recent gun-related mass killing. The movie’s release was delayed from last Nov. 22 at least in part because of the massacre in October of some 58 spectators at a Las Vegas concert.

“Death Wish” is based on a 1972 novel by Brian Garfield, in which the life of a law-abiding New York accountant is overturned when his wife and daughter are attacked by muggers — the wife is killed, and the daughter is left in a vegetative state. Frustrated by the police department’s apparent inability to apprehend the criminals, the accountant takes to the nighttime streets carrying a concealed firearm, using himself as bait to lure street criminals into traps, and then murdering them.

With actor Charles Bronson cast in the lead and Michael Winner directing, the original movie version of “Death Wish” was filmed in New York City on a $3 million budget and released to theaters in July of 1974. The picture captured the attention of a nation weary of the spread of urban crime and became an immediate sensation . . . and eventually a touchstone of popular culture with an impact that continues to this day.

“Death Wish” earned some $22 million in its original release, a remarkable amount during the pre-“Star Wars” era. The picture also made a superstar of the Ehrenfeld-born Charles Bronson in his own country after years of European popularity.

In this new version of the story, the location has been changed from New York to Chicago, but was filmed mostly in Montreal, Quebec, for economic reasons related to its relatively small $30 million budget. The main character’s profession has been changed to surgeon. And despite being partially revised and rewritten by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, after Writer’s Guild arbitration Joe Carnahan was awarded sole credit on the film as its screenwriter.

It’s difficult to imagine that “Death Wish” does not seek to offend and alienate viewers on both sides of the gun control debate, or at least provoke them, because it’s difficult to imagine the filmmakers could be aiming for an audience or demographic which will be entertained or amused by such graphic displays of carnage and violence.

Often more resembling 1972’s infamous “The Last House on the Left,” “Death Wish” seems to exist in some cartoonish parallel world, one in which the disappearance of hospital supplies and medications can go unreported and police detectives can ignore physical, ballistic and forensic evidence.

Played by actor Bruce Willis, Dr. Paul Kersey is a pacifist and attending surgeon at the Chicago North Hospital, presiding over a nightly parade of crime survivors and gunshot victims. But when the surgeon’s wife is murdered and his daughter left in a coma during an invasion and robbery of their suburban Chicago home while he’s working a late shift, the doctor takes to the streets. Armed with a handgun he quietly appropriated from one of his ER patients, the surgeon during his sleepless nights begins to hunt the mean streets of Chicago for the monsters who ravaged his family.

Since the 1985 debut of the popular “Moonlighting” television series which elevated him to stardom, Bruce Willis has essentially been playing variations of the same character — the wisecracking urban renegade, contemptuous of authority but strictly bound to a streetwise code of honor.

Early in “Death Wish,” the actor briefly seems to attempt to modulate his familiar screen persona and demonstrate some actual acting chops: When Willis’ Dr. Kersey is unable to save the life of a catastrophically-wounded police officer, the cop’s partner bitterly observes, “Now you’re gonna go over and save the scum who did this.” And Willis as the surgeon wearily replies, “If I can.”

But before long the actor returns to his usual persona, interchangeable with his characters in “Die Hard” or “The Expendables” or any one of a dozen other action films. After his first act of vigilantism, Willis without hesitation coldly executes a criminal he’s already subdued and disabled with his gunfire, obliging the viewer to wonder whether there’s a daily punch-out time related to a surgeon’s Hippocratic Oath.

Others in the cast, including Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise as the detectives assigned to the surgeon’s case, mostly play their roles as ciphers, types rather than personalities. Even the puzzling appearance of talented character actor Vincent D’Onofrio in a supporting role as Willis’ hapless ex-con brother can’t elevate this picture above its exploitation roots. D’Onofrio uncharacteristically seems to compensate for his reduced screen time by overacting in relatively few scenes he’s allowed.

It’s no surprise that “Death Wish” was directed by Eli Roth, a filmmaker generally noted for his work in the horror genre, particularly the 2005 horror exploitation film “Hostel” and its 2007 sequel. As in “Hostel,” the wounds in “Death Wish” are realistic and graphic, and the blood flows freely. Victims are sliced, diced, bludgeoned and tortured as well as gunshot . . . although the climax by comparison seems curiously anticlimactic, almost subdued. During one especially nauseating scene, a man is squished by an automobile dislodged from a suspending jack, his entrails squirting across the floor.

Unsurprisingly, “Death Wish” is receiving resoundingly excoriating reviews from critics, most of whom note the outrageous timing of the film’s release, less than three weeks after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. At least one critic has referred to “Death Wish” as pornography, and some have employed the term “revenge porn.” Jeannette Catsoulis in reviewing “Death Wish” for The New York Times calls the picture “imbecilic,” condemning the “morally unconflicted” tone of its approach to the subject matter.

“Death Wish” has been assigned an approval rating of just 15 percent from Rotten Tomatoes, and an average score of 31 percent from Metacritic. Still, the picture has earned some $13 million in revenues during its opening weekend, including $4.2 million on its opening day alone. The picture is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for . . . well, for being “Death Wish.”

Hollywood studios wouldn’t produce movies like this if they weren’t sure we’d keep paying to see them. Shame on us for obliging them.

 

“Red Sparrow” Distributed by 20th Century-Fox Pictures, 140 Minutes, Rated R, Released March 2:

Jason Matthews' novel “Red Sparrow” employs an unusual literary device: Each chapter of the book includes a reference to a specific gourmet food and ends with a recipe for its preparation.

So in the spirit of the novel, “Red Sparrow” — the movie adaptation — would probably be Borscht with Seasoned Ham: Combine a Tom Clancy thriller with an early James Bond picture, season liberally with last year’s “Atomic Blonde,” add a pinch of both the 1942 film “Casablanca” and 1946’s “Notorious,” puree in a blender, and serve chilled with vodka and vermouth on the side . . . shaken, not stirred.

In “Red Sparrow,” prima ballerina Dominika Egorova suffers a grotesque injury during a performance and must say adios to the Bolshoi. As an alternative to losing her modest government-provided apartment and the health insurance she needs to care for her ailing mother, Dominika accepts a proposal from her creepy Uncle Ivan that she enroll in “Sparrow School,” a training program operated by Russian Intelligence.

Derisively referred to by Dominika as “whore school,” the Sparrow program instructs female recruits in seduction techniques, for use on foreign operatives as a means of gaining secret information. “Red Sparrow” essentially details Dominika’s enrollment and vigorous training in the program, and her first secret assignment.

Directed by Francis Lawrence, who also guided the last three installments of the “Hunger Games” film series, “Red Sparrow” boasts first-class production values, including beautiful photography, music and a supporting cast of professional actors riding on a sort of merry-go-round of international accents and inflections — Brits and Americans using Russian inflections, an Australian affecting American cadences, and Mary-Louise Parker reciting her lines in her signature distracted southwestern drawl.

Unfortunately, “Red Sparrow” is plump and ponderous at 140 minutes, and filled with unnecessary characters, details and plot twists and turns which will either keep viewers on their toes or hopelessly confuse them. There’s not a single subplot or peripheral character this picture couldn’t jettison as ballast to reduce “Red Sparrow” to a less-punishing running time of under two hours.

Among the players, Jeremy Irons with each new performance grows to resemble legendary horror star Boris Karloff so closely that aficionados of classic films of have taken to examining the actor’s neck for Frankenstein’s electrode bolts. Irons delivers a characteristically exacting and riveting performance as a highly-placed Russian spy with motives that will keep viewers surprised until the very end.

Charlotte Rampling as the matron of the Sparrow School is essentially playing a reheated version of the Lotte Lenya character from 1962’s “From Russia with Love” — the scary, bad-tempered, uniform-clad spymaster. Rampling’s performance is also strongly reminiscent of her breakout performance in 1974’s “The Night Porter” — which is to say that her character has more than a few kinks in her cable.

The Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts appears as creepy Uncle Ivan, Dominika’s sponsor in Sparrow School. Schoenaerts’ resemblance to Vladimir Putin is so eerily pronounced that it’s impossible to not imagine his character is based on the Russian president, if not actually played by him. And Mary-Louise Parker contributes a cameo performance as a U.S. government employee who might have secrets for sale. Parker’s appearance is a breath of fresh air in a sometimes-repressive movie, but her hasty departure will leave viewers gasping.

The primary assets of “Red Sparrow” are the wonderfully seductive Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika, and Joel Edgerton as the CIA operative she’s sent to seduce. Essentially, Edgerton distracts the girls in the audience while Lawrence steals the picture. As anyone knows who’s seen Lawrence’s appearances as the villain Mystique in the “X-Men” film series, even covered in blue paint and without dialogue the Academy Award-winning actress finds a means of endearing herself to audiences of all ages and genders.

Although the teaming of Lawrence and Edgerton fails to generate the sparks necessary to ignite “Red Sparrow” into the grand romantic entertainment plainly intended by the filmmakers, both actors deliver persuasive and ingratiating performances. Lawrence’s role requires such physical punishment that viewers might wonder if the actress is performing penance for her appearance in the execrable “mother!” a few months ago, a film so fatally pretentious that even the traditionally easygoing audiences polled by CinemaScore assigned it a grade of F.

“Red Sparrow” is receiving decidedly mixed reviews from critics and audiences alike, although as usual Lawrence’s performance is being praised across the board. The picture has received an MPAA rating of R for nudity and violence, surprisingly little of which is gun-related.

Author Jason Matthews is contracted by his publisher to write a sequel. If Jennifer Lawrence is going to appear in the film version, we should probably get in line now. 

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