Friday, June 1, 2018

Off the Shelf: DEATH WISH 4 & 5 Double Feature (Blu-ray)

by Patrick Bromley
It's a double dose of Bronson justice!

I can think of few better ways than to kick off #Junesploitation -- and "Revenge!" day, no less -- than with a pair of Charles Bronson Death Wish movies from my beloved Cannon Films. What began as a gritty '70s-era (era) crime drama became, after four sequels, a live action cartoon about an unkillable, squinting sexaganarian committing mass murder against anyone who ever crossed a street against the light. The series reached its zenith with the utterly insane Death Wish 3 in 1985, but continued to limp along for two more movies over nearly 10 more years.

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown is actually pretty fun, continuing the batshit tradition of the previous movie and featuring one of the greatest bad guy deaths of all time. J. Lee Thompson takes over for Michael Winner, who had directed the first three films in the series, marking his seventh collaboration with Charles Bronson. This installment finds Paul Kersey dating a woman (Kay Lenz) whose daughter (a welcome Dana Barron, of National Lampoon's Vacation fame) gets caught up in drug use. She dies of an overdose, inspiring Kersey to wipe out the sons of bitches peddling the stuff. He is eventually hired by a millionaire publisher (John P. Ryan) to take out various drug gangs, leading to a lot of set pieces of Paul Kersey killing people. It's why we bought our ticket.
What seems at the beginning to be the Death Wish movie that's going to confront the drug epidemic of the "Just Say No" '80s pretty quickly becomes an episodic series of Charles Bronson sneaking around and murdering people. I'm not complaining about this, as it's why we watch these movies. There is the suggestion that Kersey is avenging the death of his girlfriend's daughter, but this is really no longer the guy who broke when his wife and daughter were killed and is acting as a vigilante for deeply personal reasons. The Paul Kersey of Death Wish 4 is essentially a hired gun -- a guy who now kills because he has a reputation for being really, really good at it. And he is! He manages to kill Danny Trejo in this movie, and that's very hard to do.

My memory of Death Wish 4 was that it represented a demonstrable dropoff in quality ("quality" being a relative term as it pertains to Cannon-produced Death Wish movies) from the previous film, but revisiting the movie on Umbrella's new Blu-ray double feature proved me wrong. It's patchier and less bananas than Death Wish 3, but it's still pretty wacky and totally delivers on everything we want from one of these movies. The Crackdown even mercifully excludes any scenes of rape, an unfortunate staple of the previous entries, making it a far less unpleasant watch. And between Bronson, Ryan, Trejo, Barron, and Lenz (an underrated actress whose participation in any movie is enough to guarantee I will watch), it has maybe my favorite cast of any of the Death Wish movies.
But Death Wish 4 also feels cheaper and smaller than the previous movie -- which, to be fair, was more or less a full-scale epic by the standards of the franchise. Cannon was forced to cut the budget way back because, by 1987, the writing was on the wall that the studio was on the verge of collapse. This was the year of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Masters of the Universe, two expensive gambles meant to allow Cannon to compete with the majors. Neither paid off, and Cannon, already struggling with financial troubles for years because of the sheer number of movies they were making, was more or less finished. The Crackdown is able to disguise its cheapness pretty well because it tells a smaller story and because Thompson knows how to put together inexpensive junk like this, but that doesn't change the fact that Death Wish 4 is one of the last true Cannon movies in every sense of the term.

By Death Wish 5: The Face of Death in 1994, Bronson has basically become Freddy Krueger, spouting pithy one liners before increasingly inventive murders. I say "increasingly inventive" by the standards of the Death Wish franchise; whereas Bronson used to just shoot people, now he's feeding them poison cannoli (for real) or pushing them into meat grinders. Released after the collapse of Cannon by 21st Century Film Corporation (Menham Golan's post-Cannon company), Death Wish 5 is one sequel too many for the Death Wish series. Bronson, who was already looking a little weathered at 66 in The Crackdown, was 73 when the movie was made. He is, quite literally, too old for this shit. The bigger problem is that the kind of stupid, violent trash that the Death Wish franchise celebrated in the 1980s was out of fashion by the mid-'90s, leaving no real place for a film like this.
Paul Kersey, now on his fourth girlfriend in five movies, has joined the witness protection program and returned to New York City, where he is dating a successful fashion designer (Lesley-Ann Down). She's being harassed by a mobster (Michael Parks) and is being asked to testify by the cops and the D.A. (Saul Rubinek), but resists. When she's first disfigured and later murdered, Kersey comes out of retirement to take out Parks and his goons, including the colorfully-named Freddie Flakes, who is called Freddy Flakes because he has dandruff. Right? At least he's played by Robert Joy. That guy is great.

Even the weakest Death Wish movie -- and this one is for sure the weakest, if we're not counting the remake -- is going to be fairly entertaining. Death Wish 5 is just as episodic as Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, but the setpieces themselves aren't quite as energetic or satisfying. Director Allan A. Garfield (best known for Virus and, of course, 2001: A Space Travesty) lacks some of the exploitation spirit that Winner and Thompson brought to the previous entries, and Charles Bronson's insistence that his character be less violent and more sympathetic this time around results in a movie that feels a little like a Death Wish cover band. The attempts to make the sequel jokier and "funnier" than the others also fall flat, as Bronson seems uncomfortable delivering one-liners and Paul Kersey isn't someone we're used to seeing as lighthearted. The movie has some inspired over-the-top moments and Michael Parks is a great deal of fun mugging as the villain and throwing cannoli at one of his female companions, but almost everything about the endeavor feels too little, too late. The world had already moved on from Death Wish.
While Death Wish 4 was previously available on Blu-ray from MGM, Death Wish 5 makes its region-free HD debut in this special "Cannon Classics" double feature collection from Australian label Umbrella Entertainment. Unlike the bare bones releases previously afforded to the Death Wish films (with the exception of a special edition of Death Wish II put out by Shout! Factory), Umbrella has included a handful of special features that makes this package even more worth picking up. There are trailers, TV spots, image galleries, VHS previews (which are fun), and, best of all, commentaries on both movies from Paul Talbot, author of a few books on Charles Bronson and the making of Death Wish. His knowledge of and enthusiasm for these movies is a lot of fun.

I know it may be blasphemous to say, but I tend to prefer the later Death Wish movies to the darker, gritter first films. I know they are objectively considered to be better movies, but they lack the sense of maniac fun found in parts 3 through 5. I'm excited to have this pairing from Umbrella, and the fact that it's being billed as part of a "Cannon Classics" line makes me very, very excited to see what else they have in store for us.

Blu-ray release date: May 2, 2018
Death Wish 4: The Crackdown 99 minutes/1987/R
1.85:1 (1080p)
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Death Wish 5: The Face of Death 95 minutes/1994/R
1.85:1 (1080p)
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)

Blu-ray Bonus Features:
Audio Commentaries by Paul Talbot
Theatrical Trailers
TV Spot
TV Broadcast Promo
VHS Previews
Image Gallery


  1. Haven't watched any of the series, but my choice for today was actually the first Death Wish.

  2. Death Wish 3 is a personal favorite. I also love how insane it is.