Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (J Lee Thompson, 1987)
It’s the fourth time around (and the first one with a subtitle tacked on after the number!), with architect by-day Paul Kersey (Mr. Charles ‘formerly known as Buchinsky’ himself) forced out of vigilante retirement when his girlfriend’s daughter Erica (Dana Barron) gets in with the wrong crowd and ends up dead of a drug overdose from street drugs given to her by a low-level pusher trying to get her hooked (you’d think Kersey would learn, based on the rather grim outcomes of his multiple-attempts at a love life, to keep his associations with women down to pulverizing the gangbangers attempting to rape and murder them), and a newspaper tycoon Nathan White (John P. Ryan) hires him to take out various drug kingpins around Los Angeles (in other words, time for the ‘crackdown’!).
Cannon Films’ legendary shameless Israeli sensationalists Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were determined to keep the “Death Wish” films coming fast and furious by this point (no punning comparison to a more recent, assembly-line, semi-witless action franchise intended – cuz at least this one started with an actual mature effort!) and while the series had been clearly losing some mojo with the seemingly flagging interest of sleazemeister directorial franchise helmer Michael Winner (with whatever fun the last entry mustered up coming from the wonky ridiculous NYC setting and zany over-the-top action and not from the lazy directing and frustratingly inept editing and pacing provided by Winner’s filmmaking), veteran journeyman director Thompson proved to be just the shot in the arm the by-now absurdly testosterone-fueled, explosion-laden and increasingly reactionary right-wing (80’s style!) franchise needed.
A British director who started out with tons of promise, including delivering early on such well-respected war epics as The Guns of Navarone, before moving to Hollywood in the 70’s where, along with developing a near-legendary heavy alcoholism and drug intake, settled into a much lower-brow (if more luridly fun) career as the director of many a sleazily violent Bronson effort (making nine movies together), Thompson still managed to display a flair for set-pieces (the scene of Kersey taking on the two main drug gangs on an oil-refinery field is a particular well-staged and exciting example), as well as keeping things moving at an engaging pace (something the Winner films were having greater difficulty with).
The influence of one ‘Miami Vice’ (that 80’s prototype cop show that I happen to be revisiting, currently halfway through the third season, where the pastels and neons of Miami have made a sudden production/costume design turn into surprisingly more muted tones) is apparent on this fourth entry, with Bronson’s Kersey moving up in terms of who he’s going after, no longer taking on simple street thugs (well, maybe a few — he does naturally have to take out the street dealer who gave Erica that final killer dose in ‘electrifying’ fashion, but that’s an exception this time around) but instead vying for high rollin’ crime lords. The former conscientious objector’s arsenal, already having reached preposterous levels in the previous entry, remains equally as bombastic (including good ol’ crime fighting rocket launchers), but on top of it, he now also takes to all sorts of surveillance techniques (bugging phones, fitting wine bottles with explosives) and undercover operations (including playing bartender at the rich domiciles of these cartoon villains), most of them serving very little real purpose other than to just have him do some different things this time around.
After looking more than a bit bloated around the gills and weary in the previous entry, Bronson does at least come across a bit more physically energized this time around (if still registering a bit underwhelming in the performance department). The fact that the 66 year old is clearly doing a bunch of his own stunts (and looking good doing them) is impressive. Kay Lenz, playing Bronson’s new love interest (well, not too hard to guess how that’s gonna end for her) isn’t stuck in an entirely thankless role as a reporter who decides to take on the world of illegal drug trade after her daughter’s death, but, still, she’s second fiddle by a long shot, somehow shocked that thirteen year old kids actually die from crack abuse (hence, I guess, what the film’s subtitle is partially referencing – though, strangely, everyone in the film keeps talking about the ‘devastation caused by cocaine’ without explicitly calling it crack, which seems ill-informed, considering personal experience in my proliferate college years never left me, or anyone else I knew, in a hospital morgue). I always thought Lenz had the potential to have been a genuinely impactful performer (and even has a few moments here, struggling with the death of her daughter), but was never given much of a chance, with her Farrah Fawcett Majors look and model career hampering the perception of her abilities.
Long-time supporting actor Perry Lopez, forever immortalized as Lieutenant Pablo Escobar delivering the final parting tragic dialogue “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” to Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes as he disappears into the engulfing darkness of the forever uncaring streets in Roman Polanski’s 1974 labyrinthine urban neo-noir masterpiece (and starting out with an uncredited cameo as monster-food in the original Creature from the Black Lagoon!), is an appealing performer in general, but isn’t offered much to do herein, other than to act tough and sleazy (not that that’s a bad thing in the film, just doesn’t give the actor much to play with). A very young Danny Trejo shows up briefly as a henchman who gets water thrown on him (reacting a bit too intensely, if you ask me) before getting blown up by our suddenly very-gizmo savvy favorite vigie Kersey.
John P. Ryan, having done great work just two years earlier as the brutal Warden Ranken obsessed with bringing back the two escaped convicts (John Voight and Eric Roberts, delivering equally crazed, brilliant performances) in one of the few genuinely genre-transcending action movies Cannon Films managed to be involved with, is brought back by the Israeli producers, only this time for a far less majestic role (though still somewhat memorable for the weird accent Ryan delivers in his role impersonating the newspaper magnate that I couldn’t for the life of me peg what it was supposed to be, and then for his explosive audience-pleasing final fate at the hands of cannon-carrying vengeance-seeking Kersey).
All in all, from the very first scene in a (massive yet almost entirely empty) parking garage, where Bronson’s Kersey shows up to announce himself simply as ‘Death’ to the three thugs attempting to molest a poor unsuspecting woman, played out against 80’s baroque lighting, with an energetic grandiosity that is entirely engaging (and a fantastic surprising ending to the scene that reveals it as a surprisingly clever merging into a nightmare of Kersey’s), Death Wish IV, even with all of its right wing reactionary punishing of vile bad guys who deserve to get all-blown up by any means necessary (and Kersey’s got a bunch of ways to do it) and the added wrinkle to the “Death Wish” mythos of a hysterical ‘just say no to drugs’ messaging that makes you wonder if it wasn’t underwritten by Nancy Reagan, this fourth entry reveals itself as an enjoyable, highly energetic comeback for the series.
It was time to say goodbye to Winner, who seemed to have lost interest and, with Thompson, they found just the right alternative sleazy aging white man to fill his directorial shoes. Well done, Mr. Golan and Globus. You chose wisely.