DVD Review: Death Wish 4 & Death Wish 5

Jonathon Dabell reviews Death Wish 4: The Crackdown; directed by  J. Lee Thompson & Death Wish 5: The Face of Death; directed by Allan A. Goldstein, both starrng Charles Bronson.

Both movies making their DVD Region 2 debut on Monday April 30th, 2012

Following DVD releases of Death Wish 2 & 3 earlier this year, anyone with a mind to pursue the saga further can now catch Death Wish 4: The Crackdown and Death Wish 5: The Face of Death as they make their Region 2 debut.

Charles Bronson returns as vigilante Paul Kersey in Death Wish 4, an entry which marks the arrival of a new director to the series. Michael Winner, of course, had made the first three movies in the canon (as well as three other Bronson titles) but their relationship deteriorated during the shooting of Death Wish 3 and they never worked together on another assignment.

This time around, Bronson reunites with another of his frequent collaborators – veteran director J. Lee Thompson – whose early filmography includes old classics like The Guns of Navarone and Ice Cold in Alex. Towards the twilight of his career, he settled into a niche in the exploitation genre, churning out potboilers like the slasher flick Happy Birthday to Me and various rough ‘n’ ready Bronson films (Caboblanco, 10 to Midnight, The Evil That Men Do, Murphy’s Law, etc.)

Death Wish 4 is set in Los Angeles, where Kersey now resides with cutting edge journalist Karen Sheldon (Kay Lenz) and her teenage daughter Erica (Dana Barron). He suffers from nightmares about his violent vigilante past, but has re-established himself in the architectural business and grown close to Erica, who herself is an aspiring architect. This being a Death Wish movie, things are destined to work out badly for Kersey and true to form, Erica dies when she takes a “bad batch” of crack cocaine. The distraught Kersey swears to unleash his fury against the city’s cocaine pushers and the faceless drug lords behind them.

He is approached by a millionaire named Nathan White (John P. Ryan) who lost a child of his own to crack cocaine. White persuades Kersey to vent his grief by embarking on a killing spree against the major drug cartels in the city, wiping out the unscrupulous suppliers and cleaning up the streets in the process. The usual carnage ensues with Kersey finding himself continuously under fire from his enemies; to add to his troubles, he also discovers that there may be more to White than meets the eye.

J. Lee Thompson marshals the film with typically muscular energy and slickness but can do little to salvage the episodic script by Gail Morgan Hickman. The bad guys are nothing more than cardboard characters, set up solely to be disposed of in various bloody ways by Kersey. There’s no real flow to the story – just a sequence of violent and melodramatic set pieces; efficiently done by genre standards but not remarkable or original in any way.

Few of the performances are worthy of note. By this point in his career, Bronson’s granite-like face seemed incapable of registering any emotion other than dull stoicism; his purpose in the film is to deliver action and mayhem, pure and simple. Kay Lenz is wasted (as are virtually all the female characters in the Death Wish series) and the mysterious Mr White is too unimaginatively written to give the dependable John P. Ryan a chance to shine.

Death Wish 5 relocates the action back to New York (scene of the first and third films in the series). Kersey is once more in a relationship, this time dating sexy fashion designer Olivia Regent (Lesley Anne Down), who used to be married to a thuggish mobster named Tommy O’Shea (Michael Parks).

The district attorney desperately wants Olivia to give evidence against O’Shea, dishing the dirt on his criminal activities while they were together. One of O’Shea’s thugs attacks Olivia in a restaurant restroom, gruesomely disfiguring her face with smashed glass from a mirror. Later, it gets worse when more of O’Shea’s heavies break into Olivia’s home and kill her. Frustrated by the slow progress of the law in bringing the villains to justice, Kersey once again turns vigilante to get the job done his own way.

Crippled by escalating budget cuts which forced the production to seek tax relief by shooting in Canada, this is the cheapest-looking film in the series. It is slightly better than the deplorable Death Wish 2, mainly thanks to a menacing performance by Michael Parks as the principle bad guy.

Action veteran Steve Carver was originally lined up to direct but was removed from the project when the spending cuts became necessary. It would likely have emerged a better film if he’d been allowed to stay on board, but under Allan A. Goldstein’s lacklustre direction the film ends up looking like an over-inflated TV movie with a particularly nasty streak.

The rather sickening acid bath climax enlivens the film for its final few minutes but few viewers will still be tuned in by then. Overall Death Wish 5 marks a sad and dispiriting end to a once-lucrative movie series.

FMV Rating:  Death Wish 4: The Crackdown **
Death Wish 5: The Face Of Death *½

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