Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Death Wish — following the on-going killing spree of Paul Kersey, a liberal pacifist architect who is transformed into a gun-toting vigilante after his family is attacked by muggers. The series stretched over five films from 1974 to 1994.
The Installment: Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987)
Creeps Dealt Bronson Justice: 32, plus 3 he plugs in a dream.
The Story: Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) has once more returned to Los Angeles to start over. He’s back to work as an architect, and just like before, he’s got himself a nice young blond reporter, Karen (House‘s Kay Lenz; House the movie, not the TV show), as a girlfriend. Karen has a young daughter, Erica (Dana Barron), whom Kersey views as a daughter. We know this because he expressly says so. So of course something horrible needs to happen to Erica. When the young lass goes to an arcade with her boyfriend to partake in some awesome cocaine use, she gets a bad dose and ODs. After Kersey gets himself some revengeance on the creep who gave her the coke, he is approached by a rich publisher, Nathan White (character vet, John P. Ryan), whose own daughter died because of evil cocaine. With White’s information and support, Kersey is sent on a mission to take out Los Angeles’ entire drug cartel hierarchy.
What Works: The film opens promisingly. In superhero fashion, we begin during a random Paul Kersey vigilante episode, which finds him stalking and killing some creeps in a parking ramp. Then after plugging the last creep, he rolls over the corpse only to find… his own face! Then Kersey wakes up and we realize it was all a dream. Sigh. But it was fun while it lasted.
I like the set-up for the story. Kersey receives a I Know What You Did Last Summer note, stating “I know who you are.” This is the introduction to Nathan White, who blackmails Kersey into getting back into the vigilante business to wipe out drugs. The film also has a couple of fun sequences, namely the sequence in which Kersey kills the drug dealer who gave Erica bad coke. Taking place in an arcade attached to a bumper car rink, an argument between the dealer and Erica’s boyfriend in punctuated by cutaways to bumper cars smacking into each other. It’s an odd move, but it does heighten the tension effectively. Plus the whole sequence climaxes with Kersey knocking the dealer on top of the bumper car rink – which is an electrified grid – frying the creep.
The Death Wish Stars of Tomorrow Tour continues, with a shockingly young looking Danny Trejo getting his ass blown up in a terrible looking explosion by Kersey. And also, to a lesser extent, we get a brief bit of Mitch Pileggi too.
I don’t think this necessarily counts as something that “works,” but I got a kick out of the roller-skating rink climax, but only because that rink – World on Wheels – is where I had my 30th birthday. I rented it out so I could have a Logan’s Run themed Carousel party. Yup. I’m awesome. Only a handful of my friends even understood the theme.
Really though, at the end of the day, Death Wish 4 is most notable for what is by far the most audacious and superb kill in the franchise to date. Bronson took out the Big Bad in Death Wish 3 with a mail-order rocket launcher. But it happened off-screen! Clearly I wasn’t the only one this bothered. Because this time Kersey takes out Nathan White (who turns out to be evil) with a rocket launcher in plain motherfuckin’ sight. It’s pure gratuitous action cheese.
What Doesn’t Work: Death Wish 4 is a pretty steamy turd otherwise. It’s still entirely fun on a trashy, so-bad-its-good level, but I certainly can’t give it any credit for that. The mad genius present Death Wish 3 cannot be easily duplicated. And it isn’t.
Director J. Lee Thompson had a pretty diverse and excellent career, as wide ranging as Cape Fear to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (arguably the best of the sequels), but in this context, well, he’s just no Michael Winner. In fact, after witnessing Winner’s artistic meltdown over the previous three films, it is disappointing to suddenly be without him. Right off the bat things feel wrong. The death wishing (my new term) in the opening of the film is all wrong. Sure, the woman gets her top torn off during her attempted rape, but where are the exposed breasts?! That was the series trademark! That’s why I called it death wishing! Sigh. Anyway, if this was the only Thompson movie you’d ever seen, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking the guy didn’t have a bone of directing ability in his body. His style is all over the place here. An early conversation between Kersey and Karen features some Scorsese-style quick dolly push-ins, that are just bizarrely out of place and make the content of their conversation seem heightened and intense, which it shouldn’t. Just weird.
While death wishing seems to be gone, at least another time honored Death Wish tradition lives on, and that is Kersey showing up at a hospital only to learn that the victim he was coming to see is now dead. That would be Erica, who ODs and then dies in the hospital moments before Kersey and Karen arrive. Why? Whhhyyyyy?! I find this plot convention so comically intriguing. I can’t believe that anyone working on this film didn’t realize that they did this exact same bit twice before in the series. Which means they’re doing it on purpose! Someone determined that this device was integral to the series.
What sucks about that opening dream fake-out is that once more we’re joining Kersey after he’s reformed and given up vigilantism. I really thought we were past this. It feels extra pointless considering that the film opens with killing (even if it isn’t technically real), and then Kersey immediately avenges Erica. The fact that he needs to be blackmailed into continuing killing is weak and doesn’t feel totally legit. Especially considering that Kersey has a sweet secret stash of weapons hidden behind his fridge. Doesn’t seem like he took his retirement too seriously. Though, I suppose, realistically, at this point he just has to assume anyone he gets close to will die a horrible rape-filled death sooner or later. Really, it’s kind of poor form for him to keep getting close to people.
Just like Death Wish 2 the romance here doesn’t work. For one thing, why is he with a reporter again? No one thought that was redundant? Also, shouldn’t a reporter find the details of his past kinda sketchy? Karen clearly isn’t a very good reporter. Then she literally disappears from the film entirely until the very end. Seriously, she’s gone for like 45-50 minutes. I forgot she even existed until she suddenly finds herself in a hostage situation. The fact that she then dies is kind of awesome, but emotionally ineffective. The look on Kersey’s face after she gets gunned down is priceless, as it basically seems to say, “You motherfucker…” instead of registering any kind of sorrow.
And cocaine? Seriously? Cocaine is the big OD drug we’re dealing with here? Well done, 1987. It might as well have been pot. That would’ve been funnier. The whole D.A.R.E. era let’s-abstractly-blame-dealers-for-people’s-addictions tone of Death Wish 4 is extremely lame and out of sink with the previous films, where we’re dealing with complete maniacs and personally invasive crime. But I guess that’s just a sign of the times. Even more topical than cocaine would’ve been AIDS. Erica should’ve died from getting AIDS, then Kersey goes on a rampage to kill AIDS. At least AIDS is scary. The drug dealers – in particular the drug kingpin Ed Zacharias (Perry Lopez) – are so laughably unintimidating they seem like gangsters from a Disney comedy. They should’ve all been wearing pin-striped suits and fedoras.
To top everything off, the score just keeps getting worse and worse with each film. Generally speaking it is never a great sign when you see more than one name listed under the music credit. I’m already dreading the music in Death Wish 5. Can it actually get worse?
Most Egregious Creep Moment: This didn’t have much of the standard Michael Winner egregiousness, so I’ll give it to Frank Bauggs (David Wolos-Fonteno) for the silly Bickering Bickersons relationship he has with his girlfriend. Threats of domestic violence are always delightful.
Best Bronson Kill: Rocket launcher to the gut. Clearly.
Best Bronson Dialogue: When caught breaking into Frank Bauggs apartment.
Frank Bauggs: What the fuck are you doing here?
Kersey: I was making a sandwich.
When Kersey has the drop on a random creep.
Creep: Who the fuck are you?
Was Justice Satisfactorily Handed Out: Not really. I bet people could still buy cocaine after all that.
Should There Have Been A Sequel: No. This one really stunk up the joint. But Bronson is getting so old I’m really happy they made another one. Old action stars are fab.
Up Next: Death Wish 5