Lock up your children. Paul Kersey is back for blood in the most ludicrous Death Wish instalment yet
You rarely see tough guys having nightmares in the paper-thin realms of low-budget action cinema, but if anyone deserves to suffer from them it’s Charles Bronson’s ruthless vigilante, Paul Kersey. For those of you who are familiar with our coverage of the Death Wish series, Kersey has acquired a well-earned reputation as a harbinger of death, a toxic boogeyman who wanders into peoples’ lives and leaves them burning in a pile of punitive ashes, quickly disappearing into the sunset in search of his next blood-splattered adventure. When you actually take a moment to breathe in the gun smoke, you begin to realise that what you’re dealing with is a pure bastard. He’s the devil incarnate.
Thanks to British director Michael Winner and the always respectable folk at Golan-Globus, whose prolific factory of bottom-rung films had turned them into semi-serious Hollywood players by the mid-1980s, Kersey’s character was transformed from a conflicted vengeance-seeker into a cartoon kill factory with some rather dubious Reaganite philosophies. With Cannon at the wheel having purchased the rights at the turn of the 80s, the series offered blood, rape and misogyny by the bucketload, a surefire way to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Cannon’s inaugural effort, Death Wish II, led to widespread outrage from women’s groups gagging on the movie’s grossly destructive levels of exploitation, a recipe further utilised in the wholly ridiculous Death Wish 3, a sequel which turned the silliness up to rumba. Exploiting the fears of middle class white America, those productions made target practice out of poor minorities, demonising inner-city youths with an unscrupulous zeal that was nothing short of unconscionable.
This time around, Winner is nowhere in sight having refused the third sequel based on prior commitments and the fact that Bronson didn’t particularly enjoy his time shooting the director’s previous instalment. Death Wish 3 is a manic, wildly overblown action romp which, though daubed in plenty of cynical violence and fuelled by the usual puerile revenge fantasies, manages to lighten the load through sheer ridiculousness, Kersey utilising an assortment of booby traps that wouldn’t look out of place in Home Alone were it not for the fact that dozens of people die as a consequence. In Death Wish 3, all semblance of restraint goes out of the window, particularly when our antihero reaches for the Browning M19 machine gun and ups the kill count considerably, blasting gang leader Manny Fraker clean through a plate glass window with a rocket launcher as a smiling Puerto Rican kid gives him the thumbs up at every turn, reminding us that regardless of his penchant for shooting black fellas in the back like a yellow-bellied coward, Kersey isn’t in the least bit racist — his bloodlust far outweighs any notion of discrimination.
With Winner out of the picture, it should come as no surprise to discover that Death Wish 4: The Crackdown is the first in the series not to feature any naked breasts. That’s not to say they’ve toned down the violence any. In fact, this is arguably the most violent in the series while somehow being the least offensive. Inner city youths are no longer top of Kersey’s kill list. A bunch of them still eat lead with fast food efficiency, but this time our relentless scourge is tasked with taking down a list of big-money players by mysterious millionaire, Nathan White, a deranged curmudgeon who provides him with enough heavy artillery to make his eyes pop. Kersey accepts, of course. I mean, why question the motivations of a complete stranger who randomly offers to fund your latest act of street-bound genocide? The guy’s heart’s obviously in the right place. What could possibly go wrong?
They’re all murderers, Kersey, from the smallest street corner pusher to the fat cats at the top. Anybody connected with drugs deserves to die.Nathan White
The original script saw Kersey finally struggling with his conscience, which explains the peculiar opening nightmare sequence, one that sees a gang of thugs pounce on a helpless lady in a public car park, but any semblance of depth quickly flies out of the window. Sensing a shadow hanging over him, one of the gang members looks up to see a mysterious figure looming and aggressively asks who the fuck he is. In response, Kersey simply replies, “Death”. The guy is so far gone by this point he even comes up with money-spinning one-liners in his sleep. Due to various casting difficulties and conflicts of interest, the third and final screenplay sees Kersey utilising his particular set of skills to turn two rival drug factions against one another, a concept screenwriter Gail Morgan Hickman borrowed from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai masterpiece Yojimba. And in case you were wondering, the comparisons stop there.
In fact, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown is more akin to a Friday the 13th movie, Kersey replacing Jason Voorhees as the film’s marauding beast of crowd-pleasing destruction. Once tasked with bringing down the Los Angeles cartel, his list of victims are laid out via some voice-over narration from cold-bloodied advocate White. It’s almost as if Pamela Voorhees is talking to Jason from beyond the grave, goading him into yet another remorseless killing spree. You may think it something of a stretch to compare the supernatural, nigh-on indestructible Jason to an urban cowboy such as Kersey, but so adept is Bronson’s vigilante at dishing out and evading death he often makes the relentless horror icon seem like a timid soul by comparison. At least Jason is temporarily halted on occasion. Kersey is an unstoppable purveyor of cruel and wanton destruction who barely suffers a nick.
Death Wish 4 doesn’t waste any time getting to it thanks to the kind of mercifully succinct set-up we’ve seen a thousand times before, though none quite as ruthlessly formulaic. It all happens so quickly it may as well be the opening to a NES game, a crude title screen showing the death of a loved one before all-out, button-mashing carnage ensues. For those of you who think I’m exaggerating, during the film’s bullet-strewn finale, Kersey partakes in a shoot-out in a video game galleria, nondescript bad guys popping up from behind arcade machines like characters in a game of Operation Wolf. The irony, accidental or otherwise, is absolutely delicious.
The film’s maudlin first act, instigated by the usual cardboard slimeballs, involves yet another doomed fiancee. This one has a talented and ambitious young daughter, which as anyone who’s familiar with the series will know can only spell disaster, particularly when our vigilante refers to her as his own flesh and blood. Kersey’s own daughter was raped twice, committed to a psychiatric ward and killed in the space of two instalments, something that doesn’t seem to plague him one bit. Worst of all, most of the horrors that transpired could easily have been avoided if he’d simply turned his cheek and kept on top of his itchy trigger finger. The problem is, Kersey never seems to learn from his mistakes, or even want to, and in case you’re under any illusion to the contrary, Death Wish 4 gives us more of the same, surrogate daughter Erica immediately overdosing on crack cocaine in what is a shameless nod to America’s real-life crack pandemic.
Back in the mid 1980s, super drug crack cocaine devastated US inner cities, thanks in large part to Ronald Reagan turning a blind eye to shipments of powder cocaine arriving on American shores during the Iran Contra affair, a conflict that saw the US government fund one side and sell weapons to the other. Matters quickly got out of hand as the drug rapidly turned a nation into addicts, but rather than understanding addiction, the government decided to persecute. They were selective about it too, targeting poor minority areas and ignoring affluent cocaine use by placing larger penalties on crack and loosening laws on more expensive forms of the drug. During that time, obscenely harsh mandatory prison terms saw the number of black men imprisoned skyrocket, a trend that coincided with America’s prison construction boom. Put succinctly, African-Americans were becoming commodity.
The world of Death Wish 4 paints a very different picture, a fact hammered home by Nathan White, who tells Kersey, “They’re all murderers, Kersey, from the smallest street corner pusher to the fat cats at the top. Anybody connected with drugs deserves to die.” The film basically tells audiences to enforce their fifth amendment rights if they’re to avoid having their own children die at the hands of America’s shifty inner city hoodlums. At least Erica’s mother doesn’t have to live with the guilt. Thanks to Kersey, she’s ruthlessly gunned down before the credits roll, and I must emphasise the word Ruthlessly. By the movie’s end she’s got more holes in her than the film’s increasingly incongruous plot.
By now, Kersey must kind of expect it. This sort of tragedy seems to afflict him every couple of years, and not once has he shown a single shred of remorse for being the catalyst for so much needless death and destruction. I mean, who are these morons who accept him into their lives? I’d go as far as to say that Kersey subconsciously invites such wanton destruction; if it were not for his unprecedented ability to attract trouble my guess is he’d be out looking for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he one day turned up at a remote summer camp with a sack full of sharp objects. I can picture it now: a girl is taking a post-sex shower when a mysterious silhouette appears. Her hand reaches slowly for the curtain and she tears it back to reveal Kersey standing there with an empty condom packet in one hand and the severed head of her boyfriend in another. “Why?!” The girl screams out. “Sex kills,” Kersey replies.
In many ways, The Crackdown is more a tongue-in-cheek Arnie vehicle than classic Death Wish. There’s no longer any meaning behind Kersey’s words. He’s simply going through the motions. Bronson is still the same vengeful vigilante, but his repertoire of zingers are next level ridiculous, and for the most part rather redundant. In one scene, an increasingly inept and careless Kersey is caught snooping around a bad guy’s apartment after the crook returns home for a forgotten item and gets the drop on his intruder. With a gun pointing directly at Kersey, death seems like the only feasible outcome. “What the fuck are you doing here?” the man asks, to which our antihero glibly replies, “I was making a sandwich.” I was making a sandwich?! You call that a punchline? Moments later, our villain (or at least a ludicrously cheap dummy) is plummeting wildly from a twenty-story building, crashing onto the roof of the limousine where his date vacuously awaits. When Kersey stops to take in the carnage, it may as well be John Matrix peering down at his handy work from high above the Hollywood Hills. “Sully, remember when I promised to kill you last? I lied!”
Similarly, the movie’s overblown finale is more Commando than Death Wish, albeit on a minuscule budget in a series of cheap locations. Kersey is all-action in this one; the guy just can’t be killed, wounded, grazed, or even brushed out of the way. During the movie’s final act, Bronson’s angel of death becomes a one-man wrecking crew, making orphans out of countless children with a ceaseless tirade of automatic weapons, grenades and bazookas. There’s also an incredible one-man Uzi massacre that makes the T-800 look like a villain with a conscience. Even more startling is arguably the most brutal final death in action movie history, albeit one that is more than justified. You think Fraker being blasted out of a window in Death Wish 3 was blunt and to the point? Wait ’til you get a load of this! So abrupt and unexpected is the kill in question that I literally choked on my drink, thrown into a frenzy of incredulous laughter for the entire end credits. It’s one of those moments that really has to seen to be believed.
The villain in question is played by Cannon regular John P. Ryan at his most deliciously overblown, even more so than his performance as a Republican megalomaniac in 1986‘s Michael Dudikoff vehicle Avenging Force, or even his delicious turn as spank-happy android Mr. Hardin in Mark L. Lester’s dystopian oddity Class of 1999. Everything about him, from the cheap wig and fake mustache to the gaudy acting and cheap sound effects, is so wonderfully kitsch and second-rate. A million comedians could try for a million years and still fail to come up with a performance quite so preposterous.
Detective Nozaki: [aiming gun at Kersey] I can be very, very nasty if I want to be.
Paul Kersey: [fires at Nozaki with a hidden pistol through his canvas] So can I.
Even more preposterous is Kersey himself. When it comes to strategy, Cannon’s most infamous vigilante is more useless than John Matrix at his most mindlessly cavalier. So intent on killing is Kersey that he approaches affairs with a reckless abandon that defies all logic. First he tells his main squeeze, a journalist, to use her skills to spread the word about the social scourge that is powder cocaine, a suggestion that leads her to a coroner’s workspace that conveniently carries a still-warm batch of teenage victims, one of them a thirteen-year-old prostitute with her throat slit from ear-to-ear. If this woman had the slightest inkling of her closed book of a boyfriend’s past she’d run a mile; it’s as if Kersey wants her to draw attention to herself for the sake of further carnage.
Later, Kersey goes undercover as a waiter at the mansion of a drug lord, who senselessly decides to stab one of his associates to death in plain sight during a lavish soirée. Kersey, who’s hiding in a nearby bathroom, carelessly alerts the thugs to his presence. Any other waiter would be toast, but so infallible is our lead that the drug lord puts absolute faith in his silence, even asking him to assist with disposing of the body. Now that’s some Jedi mind shit, right there! In the next scene, Kersey interrupts another gang of top-rung hoods and offers them a bottle of wine on the house. The thugs seem to recognise him, and before you know it he’s clumsily mumbled his way into a corner, resorting to throwing a drink in the face of a young Danny Trejo in a move that threatens to unravel his entire scheme. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
By the time Death Wish 4 emerged from the B-movie rubble, most people were probably rolling their eyes with dismay, but this may be my absolute favourite instalment. It may lack the overblown chaos of its predecessor, but everything about it is so charmingly cheapskate: the second-rate acting, the manner in which the extras fall and tumble to their demise, the deadpan expressions and the truly awful delivery — it’s simply mind-blowing. Previous instalments seemed to carry a more sinister edge, even the wholly preposterous Death Wish 3, which still managed to retain moments of stark brutality that made you pause for breath. Death Wish 4: The Crackdown is far less destructive, and as a result more rewarding, mostly because it’s even more impossible to take seriously. The quasi-ethical message is still spurious — if anything, it’s Kersey himself who sets the worst example, a series of creative kills undertaken with the insouciance of an actor who’s simply in it for the paycheck — but even the most disconnected bigot would struggle to swallow this kind of garbage. It’s pure lunacy from start to finish.
The film’s body count is also unruly, Kersey’s ability to plough through humankind putting the majority of his musclebound counterparts to shame. He gets away with it too. It doesn’t matter that he’s the sole reason for the battleground of corpses rotting in his wake, or that his girlfriend lies bullet-strewn on the ground before him, our self-serving serial killer (arguably the worst in cinematic history by this point) is once again allowed to walk based on law enforcement empathy, and he doesn’t even have the good grace to stick around for the funeral.
He could have at least made the sandwiches.