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, disappearing into the sunset without even the merest hint of regret in search of his next blood-splattered adventure.
Thanks to British director Michael Winner and the always respectable folk at Golan-Globus, whose prolific factory of bottom-rung films had made them semi-serious Hollywood players by the mid-1980s, Kersey’s character had been 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, Death Wish II leading 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. Exploiting the fears of middle class white America, those productions made target practice out of poor minorities who were painted as the devil incarnate, demonising inner-city youths with an unscrupulous zeal that was nothing short of unconscionable.
This time, 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 on the set of the director’s last instalment. I never would have guessed. Death Wish 3 is a manic, wildly overblown action romp which, though daubed in plenty of cynical grue and fuelled by the usual puerile revenge fantasies, manages to lighten the load through sheer ridiculousness, Kersey utilising the kind 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 the gang’s leader clean through a plate glass window with a rocket launcher as an even younger 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. Some genius edited a video for YouTube titled Death Wish 3 in 10 minutes. Only after watching this condensed onslaught did I truly appreciate the movie’s cartoon madness.
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 nude 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 a mysterious millionaire who provides him with enough heavy artillery to make his eyes pop. The original script saw Kersey finally struggling with his conscience, which explains the opening nightmare scene, one that sees a gang of thugs pounce on a helpless lady in a public car park. 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”. Yes, this guy 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 claimed was influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai masterpiece Yojimba, though consuming this hodgepodge you wouldn’t realise it.
Nathan White: 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.
In fact, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown is more akin to a Friday the 13th movie, with 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 Nathan 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, invincible, nigh-on indestructible Jason to an urban cowboy such as Kersey, but so adept is Bronson’s vigilante at dishing out and evading death that he often makes the horror icon seem like a restrained and unfortunate soul. I mean, at least Voorhees is stopped temporarily on occasion. Kersey is an unstoppable purveyor of cruel and wanton destruction who barely succumbs to a nick. Those who paid to see Death Wish 4 knew what to expect, and those who made it knew exactly what to serve up. So ruthless and elaborate is Kersey’s gallery of death that such comparisons are unavoidable. In a one-on-one battle, my money would be on Kersey.
Death Wish 4 doesn’t waste any time getting to it thanks to a mercifully succinct set-up that we’ve seen a thousand times before — well, almost. This one is something of a different breed because it’s so ruthlessly formulaic. It all happens so quickly that it may as well be the set-up for 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 bullet-strewn finale, Kersey partakes in a shoot-out in a video game galleria, nondescript bad guys popping their heads out from behind arcade machines like characters in a game of Operation Wolf. Whether this was purposeful is unclear, but accidental or otherwise, the irony is absolutely delicious.
This instalment’s maudlin set-up involves yet another doomed fiancee. This one has a talented and ambitious young daughter, which as anyone who is familiar with the series will know can only spell disaster, particularly when Kersey announces that he sees her as his own flesh and blood. I’d hate to ruin things for you, but spoilers just don’t matter for this kind of affair, because by now we know exactly what is going to happen, and in case you are under any illusion to the contrary: a loved one dies at the hands of thugs and another is kidnapped and gunned down. By now, Kersey must kind of expect it. This sort of tragedy afflicts him every couple of years or so, and not once has he shown a single shred of remorse for being the main catalyst. I mean, who are these morons who accept him into their lives? I’d go as far as to say that Kersey needs such an outlet for bloody mayhem, and 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 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, Death Wish 4 is more of a tongue-in-cheek Arnie vehicle. There’s no longer any meaning to Kersey’s words. He’s simply going through the motions, too concerned with his next round of street-bound genocide. Bronson is still the same vengeful vigilante, but the violence borders on the comical, and his repertoire of zingers are next level ridiculous. 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?! Really? Moments later, our villain (or at least a ludicrously cheap dummy) is plummeting wildly from a twenty-five-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 own handywork. “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 is 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 a moment you really have to see to believe. The villain in question is played by Cannon familiar John P. Ryan at his most deliciously overblown, even more so than during 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 moustache to the gaudy acting and cheap sound effects ― is so wonderfully kitsch and second-rate. Golan-Globus, you’ve gotta love ’em!
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.
When it comes to strategy, Cannon’s most infamous vigilante is more useless than John Matrix at his most mindlessly cavalier and bumbling. 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 work space that conveniently carries a still warm batch of teenage victims, one of them a thirteen-year-old prostitute with her throat cut. 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 is 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 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. It is moments like this that leads to his girl succumbing to a vicious and fateful spray of machine gun fire. Once again, everybody Kersey cares about or comes into contact with is in great jeopardy or worse. Some things never change.
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. Okay, so it may not have the overblown chaos of its predecessor, but everything about it is just 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 is even more impossible to take seriously. The quasi-ethical message is still spurious — if anything, it is Kersey himself who sets the worst example, a series of creative kills undertaken with the insouciance of an actor who is simply in it for the pay cheque — but even the most disconnected bigot would struggle to swallow this kind of garbage. It is pure horseplay from start to finish.
The body count here is unruly, Kersey’s ability to plough through humankind putting the majority of his musclebound counterparts to shame. Despite his otherworldly resurrections, ability to regenerate and even teleport, Jason is a more plausible character than Kersey, who once again saunters into the urban sunset with a toothpick nonchalance that is deeply unnerving. It doesn’t matter that he is 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. By this juncture, there’s no doubt in my mind that Kersey is the devil incarnate, a lethal apparition sent to wreak havoc on the Earth, and when the smoke clears and Death Wish 5 finally finds its way onto my schedule, you just know there’ll be a fresh bunch of unsuspecting victims lined up for the slaughter. Personally, I can’t wait.