This past weekend marked the debut of two violent thrillers that featured heroes hell-bent on revenge at all costs, both for highly personal reasons.

“Death Wish” is a remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson cult classic about a mild-mannered man (Bruce Willis) who is pushed into buying a gun and cleaning up the streets when he feels cops have failed him in finding the thugs who killed his wife and raped his teenage daughter. Given thesedescriptions one might think that “Red Sparrow” is the classier of the two, sure to put smart writing ahead of grisly violence , but that would be, well, dead wrong.

“Sparrow” puts Lawrence’s Dominika Egorova into the heart of a twisty plot filled with metaphorical and literal double-crosses and back-stabbings after she is assigned to track down an American woman who’s attempting to sell Russian secrets. Before she can take on that mission, which centers on her getting in good on multiple levels with an American agent played by Joel Edgerton, Dominika must learn how to seduce, kill, and both inflict and withstand torture.

Because it’s such a depressing slog, filled with its own sense of inflated self-importance, I’ll dispense with the plot description because I’m really not recommending it and want to save space to rave about “Death Wish.” Suffice it to say, that it’s sad and disturbing to see a young and accomplished actress like Jennifer Lawrence — who’s already won an Oscar and isn’t even 30 — feel like she has to “prove” something by getting naked, raped, tortured, beaten and displaying a nasty ability to kill people with blunt objects, and even torture them by peeling their skin off with an electric grafter.

On the other hand, “Death Wish” is surprisingly tasteful and responsible in its use of violence while maintaining a truly exciting and fun atmosphere that incorporates thought-provoking discussions on how far a person should go to protect their family, and how far should we, as a society, extend our Second Amendment rights when the police are too overwhelmed to be effective.

Willis plays Paul Kersey, a mild-mannered doctor in Chicago, a switch in both profession for Kersey, with Bronson’s character playing an architect, and setting, replacing once-grimy New York City, which lately has taken on the image of a family-friendly wonderland). His wife and teenage daughter are home alone one night when three intruders bust in to rob them, leaving the wife shot dead and the daughter beaten into a coma.

Kersey at first lets the cops solve the crime, but when they can’t seem to catch a break, and he sees a wall filled with index cards on unsolved murders, he gets a handgun and starts cleaning up the streets while searching for leads. The resulting mayhem sets the cops racing after him as well, while local talk-radio hosts engage a raging debate over the righteousness or wrongheadedness of his crusade.

“Death Wish” is a pleasant surprise on many levels. First, Willis wakes up and delivers a fully fleshed-out, charismatic performance for the first time in at least five years. This is the kind of role he does best, and it’s great to see a master movie star back in action.

Second, director Eli Roth (the “Hostel” movies, “The Green Inferno”) seemed like he’d be a disastrous choice for this film because of his past reputation as the king of “torture porn” movies. Here, he shocks more with his restraint, leaving the murder of Paul’s wife off screen and not making it clear if Paul’s daughter was raped — marked improvements from the grisly on-camera crimes committed in the Bronson original. He also delivers a film that works with crisp finesse and maximum efficiency on every level. 

I’m as anti-gun as a guy can get, and I still loved this movie. No matter what your political leanings are, it’s impossible to consider modern American society without a sense that things are going very wrong with crime, homelessness and the opioid crisis all spreading like wildfire. As a video in the movie shows Paul, a gunshot can solve a problem in three seconds that years of courtroom appeals might never achieve.

Of course, in real life I don’t believe in people taking to the streets with guns. In fact, I thing think most guns ought to be banned, period. But gazing at a screen and imagining a world in which guys like Paul Kersey make a stand for all of us, a film like “Death Wish” is an unbelievably satisfying experience. Most critics have hated on “Death Wish” for being pro-gun, but I have no doubt this is going to be a major hit because the average moviegoer wants to feel empowered, even if it’s for two hours at a time.

“Red Sparrow”: D

“Death Wish”: A 

 

Capsule Reviews

 

A WRINKLE IN TIME

Stars: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon

Length: 109 minutes

Directed by: Ava DuVernay

Rating: PG

This embarrassing misfire reveals why it took 50 years to film this timeless children’s-lit classic: it makes no sense on the big screen, especially when the novel’s Christian allegory is ground into New Age claptrap. Pretty to look at, but utterly incomprehensible and boring. Oprah Winfrey really needs to demand better hair and makeup: she looks like RuPaul crossed with an Oompah Loompah.   Grade:D

 

ANNIHILATION

Stars: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Length: 115 minutes

Directed by: Alex Garland

Rating: R

Natalie Portman delivers an effective blend of emotions and ass-kicking as she leads a team of female scientist-soldiers into a mysterious forcefield, trying to save humanity and find what killed her husband on a prior mission into the void. Fascinating and scary until the final half-hour, when a series of stupid scenes nearly ruin the film.   Grade: C

 

BLACK PANTHER

Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan

Length: 134 minutes

Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Rating: PG-13

The first major superhero movie centered on an African-American character debuted to record box office and is a rocket blast of fun, with the Afrocentric perspective infusing freshness into everything from music and costuming to narrative point of view and reinvigorating a genre that was in danger of being shopworn.   Grade: A

 

PHANTOM THREAD

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps

Length: 130 minutes

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rating: R

A laughably pretentious tale of a top British fashion designer ridiculously named Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) and his extremely slow-building and utterly implausible relationship with a female underling (Vicky Krieps) amid 1950s-era repression. The film is being sold as a gift to viewers since it’s Day-Lewis’ final film, but viewers will want to take it back.    Grade: D

 

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones

Length: 130 minutes

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Rating: R

Guillermo del Toro’s latest epic fantasy leads the Oscar race with 13 well-deserved nominations. Sally Hawkins delivers a uniquely silent performance as a meek mute woman who works as a janitor in an early-1960s government facility and falls for the mysterious creature that scientists are studying and about to kill. Achingly romantic, beautifully shot, and downright exciting, this is as close to perfect as movies get.  

Grade: A