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 V: The Face of Death (1994)
Creeps Dealt Bronson Justice: 7.
The Story: Since Death Wish films can only take place in New York or Los Angeles, and the previous film was in Los Angeles, that obviously means we’re now back in New York now. Having learned absolutely nothing from two decades of personal-loss-fueled-vengeance, architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is once again in a relationship. Having given up his penchant for blond reporters, this time his chickie is a fashion designer, Olivia Regent (Lesley-Anne Down), with a tween daughter. All would be great except Olivia’s ex-husband and babydaddy is an ambiguous gangster named Tommy O’Shea (Michael Parks), who is all sorts of bad news. But absolutely nothing bad happens to Kersey’s loved ones this time. Happy ending!
Just kidding Olivia is obviously beaten and murdered. So then Kersey kills people.
What Works: This film is a bit of a return to the original Death Wish, as far as tone is concerned. It is definitely the most reserved of the sequels, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t feature some fun gonzo stuff. The silliest aspect of the film is the hitman Freddie “Flakes” (Robert Joy), who is basically a cosplayer with terrible dandruff. I love that he has dandruff, a character trait that has absolutely nothing to do with the character’s actions or personality, or with the film’s plot, or with anything that ever happens in the film. He just has dandruff, a fact that is introduced during the character’s introduction – savagely bashing Olivia’s face into a mirror – when he becomes concerned that you can see his flakes in his cosplay cross-dressing outfit. Then it is mentioned again by the DA (Saul Rubinek) who is trying to help Kersey take down Tommy. Then it is mentioned again when Freddie discusses it with his hot girlfriend. His cosplay love at least plays a role in how he executes his job. Why does he have dandruff? I guess someone thought it added to the character. It also provides inspiration for Kersey’s best line (see at bottom).
Michael Parks is easily the best aspect of this film. A master of un-enunciation, Parks is always a bizarre presence even in bizarre films like From Dusk Til Dawn and Kill Bill. Having him as the main villain here is just delightfully off-kilter, in a good way. He’s too good for the film, really. The character of Tommy is pretty stupid, the kind of movie gangster that we never really get a grasp on what manner of racket he runs. The kind of mobster about which another character might say “he’s got his hands in everything.” Tommy just does crime stuff. And lots of it. And he’s hardcore we know because he cuts a fat guy’s belly with a power saw during the film’s opening. I also like how the film goes out of its way to establish how much Tommy sucks. He’s not just a bad guy who doesn’t care about his daughter, we also learn he’s impotent when we overhear his girlfriend say “Nothing is happening again” whilst trying to blow him. What does him being impotent have to do with anything? Nothing, but now he sucks more! Same philosophy used in Animal House.
The film has a few interesting cinematic moments too. I dug a goofy shot when a young boy runs into a church during a mobster funeral, and the entire collection of thugs occupying the pews spin around on the kid, guns extended. Great shot. There is also an excellent stunt when a female detective gets nailed by a car, which then directly leads into my favorite convention of the Death Wish franchise — Kersey arriving at a hospital only to find out the victim is already dead! The moment isn’t as ridiculous and egregious as it was in parts 1, 3, and 4, but I’m just happy it happened one last time. “How is she?” Dead, Kersey. Already dead. Just like everyone you presumably ever visit in the hospital. This man is the harbinger of death for all he meets, in so many ways.
Considering how few kills there are in this film, they are at least pretty interesting. Poisoning a guy with cannoli. That’s a new one. And I loved the premeditation with which Kersey cuts up Tommy’s face with a broken bottle (retribution for cutting up Olivia’s face; even though she’s dead anyway). Kersey doesn’t just grab a broken bottle and jam it in Tommy’s face. No, he finds a bottle, breaks it, then carries it around for a bit until he locates Tommy. Now that’s dedication to jamming a broken bottle in a dude’s face. Gotta respect that.
While I don’t think the score is commendable in any way, I do at least need to note that it isn’t worse than Death Wish 4, breaking the pattern of exponentially worsening scores for the sequels.
What Doesn’t Work: Death Wish V has the fewest Kersey kills of any of the Death Wish films, which is surprising for a film this deep in a franchise that already went so far off the rails into gonzo body counts. The kills are all satisfying, so I don’t think the number itself is a problem so much as the pace. Kersey doesn’t kill anyone until 50 minutes into the film. Conversely, he kills his first victim at the 40 minute mark in the fucking original Death Wish! And that’s after he’s already assaulted that guy with the sock full of quarters. And that film was his origin story! He’s already a nutjob vigilante at this point. Can you imagine if Spider-Man hadn’t fought any crime for 50 minutes in one of the Sam Rami sequels? For the fifth film in the franchise, 50 minutes is a truly unacceptable amount of time to wait on the shit people paid their money for.
Bronson is old now. He was old when he made the first film. Now he’s old old. In his 70’s. This was the time period in which The Simpsons made their classic Death Wish 9 joke, featuring Kersey lying in a hospital bed and saying, “I wish I was dead. Oy!” Bronson has still got all his Bronson goodness, but the years can’t be hidden from the action scenes. It could have at least been unintentionally funny if the film had just gone with it, or clumsily worked around the fact that Bronson’s joints won’t let him throw a punch like he used to, but the movie does just a good enough job of concealing the reality that it is more depressing than anything else. And then there are a few moments that just feel entirely preposterous, like Kersey jumping off the top of a two-story building, doing a front flip, and landing on a pile of trash. And being fine. Or him wrapping a goon in plastic, then lifting him up off the ground to hang him on something. Old man Kersey must be doing the Leatherface work out.
Why does Kersey keep getting girlfriends? Seriously, guy. How many women do you need to get killed before you just decide to be a bachelor? A bit selfish, no? I wouldn’t even have gotten another housekeeper after Death Wish 2, much less a new girlfriend with a new daughter. This kind of repetition in the series is just dumb, and not even fun like death wishing or The Hospital Gag. There is also no explanation for why this famous fashion designer was married to a gangster. Kersey seems to date women with a very poor grasp on how to function in tense situations. The woman in Death Wish 2 was completely oblivious and uncaring to the fact that Kersey’s daughter had just been raped and killed. And here, when Kersey first sees Tommy he’s like, “I’m gonna go tell that guy off,” and Olivia lets him?!?! She knows he’s a dangerous criminal!! And she doesn’t know Kersey is a badass! Even if she isn’t going to try and stop Kersey, shouldn’t she at least mention who Tommy is? She’s lucky Kersey didn’t die right then and there.
The tone of Death Wish V is awkward. It is trying to be more serious, like the original film, yet it also is littered with lowbrow action movie moments like the rest of the sequels — like Kersey squaring off against three goons with machine guns, and shooting all three of them while none of them can hit him. He is mere yards away and there are three of them and they have machine guns. Tommy needs to send his boys to a shooting range. And Olivia’s clothing factory contains a huge vat of acid with no covering of any kind or safety bars around the edge. Just a big ol’ vat of acid on the floor. Which I assume they have in every clothing factory. I believe I read somewhere that the number one cause of death for clothing manufacturers is “accidentally fall into the acid vat.”
This isn’t much of a complaint, but one of the three goons that Kersey kills in that face off talks in a cartoon voice like Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget. It was extremely distracting.
Most Egregious Creep Moment: The goons who put a snitch’s head into a steam press, followed up by the one-liner: “Well, Reg. Now you’re all straightened out.”
Best Bronson Kill: Kersey purchases a remote controled soccer ball that he fills with explosives. He uses the soccer ball to set off the burglar alarms at Freddie “Flakes” mansion, luring the hitman outside where he finds the soccer, presumes it harmless, and picks it up. Then he explodes. I was left wondering if that remote control soccer ball was an actual product, cause if so it is a terrible one. What the fuck would you ever use it for, except to blow up hitmen with dandruff?
Best Bronson Dialogue: Immediately before blowing up Freddie “Flakes.”
Kersey: Hey, Freddie, I’m going to take care of your dandruff problem for you.
Was Justice Satisfactorily Handed Out: Yeah, and there was even a vaguely happy ending, as Olivia’s daughter survives.
Should There Have Been A Sequel: Most definitely not.
Franchise Assessment: I think any franchise was worth the time and effort if it produces something noteworthy deep into its run. Death Wish 4 had the rocket launcher death. Death Wish V had the soccer ball death. That’s enough to justify five installments for me. And the fact that Death Wish 3 exists at all is enough of a reason for there to have been sequels, period.
I can’t help but wonder, though, what else Michael Winner might have done. Is it even possible he could have kept going farther down the rabbit hole? Would Kersey himself have eventually death wished some chick? 4 and 5 are out of sync with the rest of the series. Fighting drug dealers was boring, but at least it was an attempt to escalate the pool of creeps Kersey was after. Death Wish V was thus a pretty blah way to go out. He should have had to take down the actual mafia. Or the CIA or something. Or fought Jason. I don’t know. Something more than seven lame gangsters.
The franchise ranked from best to worst:
Death Wish 3
(though 3 is the one I’d most want to watch again)
Death Wish 2
Death Wish 4
Death Wish 5
Up Next: …what will it be party people? Instead of doing a vote, I just want to hear suggestions and I’ll pick the one that most excites me. Let’s try and cover a lot of genres.