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.
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.
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.
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
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Death Wish 5: The Face of Death 95 minutes/1994/R
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Blu-ray Bonus Features:
Audio Commentaries by Paul Talbot
TV Broadcast Promo