Death Wish V: The Face of Death (Allan A. Goldstein, 1994)
It may have been seven years since the last instalment, and while his Cannon Films had gone belly up (in a Titanic-level capsizing as spectacular as its rise was), nothing was gonna deter legendary shyster Israeli filmmaker Menachem Golan from unleashing his ol’ reliable (if definitely fading) cinematic money-maker – namely, architect-cum-vigilante Paul Kersey who seemingly never had a relationship that didn’t end with his newly acquired loved one (and often their kid) slaughtered (he should really have considered trying to date a fellow action star like Chuck Norris… might have had a chance) — back on the violent streets for one last right-wing revenge fantasy (never mind that the time away appeared to be in dog years for a wearier looking than ever Charles Bronson).
Kersey has returned to New York (well, some weird Twilight Zone version anyway, in which, other than a few establishing shots, the Big Apple looks suspiciously as if, I don’t know, say, the filmmakers could barely be bothered to conceal that they actually shot it in Toronto for tax credit purposes) under an assumed name, as part of the witness protection program (well, there’s a twist we didn’t expect – though it begs the question, if the coppers caught him, what exact information Kersey traded to get protection? – I mean, he had blown up all the mobsters at the end of the last sequel!). He’s got a new love (yep, you know what that means), a popular fashion designer Olivia (Lesley-Anne Down), who has a cute young daughter (the better for sociopathic henchmen to threaten you with).
Soon after Paul proposes to Olivia, her violently crazy mobster ex-husband Tommy O’Shea (Michael Parks) starts muscling into her business, including threatening some of her floor workers, with his goons laughing maniacally as they dangle some manager shlub over an entirely implausible vat of acid precariously placed in the warehouse (a body-dissolving acid that you just know is gonna get used in spectacular fashion later), and actually physically harm her, including bashing her face against a mirror and permanently disfiguring her (with her loss of beauty treated as tragic a fate as the potential of losing her daughter).
Law enforcement can do nothing (worse, there’s an informant for O’Shea in their midst), but Kersey can… and if Kersey is gonna teach anyone anything by the end of this latest bloodbath, it’s gonna be those damn bleeding heart police higher ups, like DA Hoyle (Saul Rubinek – what do you know, a Canadian actor) and Lt King (Kenneth Walsh) that sometimes you just gotta lay aside those limp-dick laws they hide behind and stand fully erect, like a man, kick some bloody, violent ass, and enact real justice for once (or at least get out of the way and let Kersey do it).
After the re-discovered excitement for Kersey’s exploits coming out of Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, in which long-time filmmaking vet J. Lee Thompson brought back a genuine chutzpah (if preposterously overblown, but that’s part for the course by this point) and directorial flair to the proceedings (which seemed to even re-energize Bronson) that was really starting to dissipate over the first three entries brought to us by that talented sleazemeister (which I say with more than a bit of admiration, mind you) filmmaker Michael Winner, I went into Death Wish V (the second in a row to incorporate a subtitle) kinda feeling good about the series.
The moment I realized Golan had turned the reigns over to some complete unknown named Allan A. Goldstein (whose credits include nary a film, other than Death Wish V, that I know anything about) I should have tempered my enthusiasm.
Never the most deeply emoting of actors (they didn’t call him ‘stone face’ for nothing), Bronson could usually be relied upon to still muster up at least a poignant feeling here and there, as well as exhibit an empathetic quality (just look at that early unforgettable portrayal of the terrified claustrophobic ‘Tunnel King’ Lieutenant Velinski in the brilliant war epic The Great Escape), or even on the rare occasion give a fully realized complex performance (such as in the first Death Wish), but Bronson seems more disinterested than ever. Perhaps partly due to the death from cancer of his long-time love, Jill Ireland, between Kersey entries, there’s also the fact that it’s really getting harder and harder to believe Bronson, as good as he looks for his age, is capable of running around shooting it out (as well as engaging in hand-to-hand combat) with tons of imposing bad guys (who have moved up from street thugs in the first three entries to gangster henchmen for these last two) at the by now exceedingly ripe old action star age of 73.
Even Michael Parks, a familiar character actor usually reliable to bring some eccentric weirdness to bolster the proceedings, ends up offering little beyond a pedestrian sociopathic bad guy.
Along with the unremarkable directing (which only enhances how familiar all these endlessly repeating Death Wish story elements really are), bland Canadian-style lighting and bored acting, perhaps _Death Wish 5_’s greatest crime is that there aren’t nearly enough action set-pieces in it (let alone excitingly carried out ones). There’s an unforgiveable amount of talking time, and when Kersey does kick into gear, after the death of – well, you know who – causes him to drop the nice guy architect act and get back to full raving viggie, knocking off O’Shea’s goons, one by one, it’s often through less-than-exciting and far too complex schemes that require way too many coincidences to carry out (next to the poisoning by cyanide in a cannoli idea, though, the exploding remote control soccer ball is at least kinda funny for how absurd it is).
Still, the continued, if final, reactionary exploits of Paul Kersey are bigger than just one subpar entry and the Bronson/Kersey series remains a pleasure to have seen in its five-film entirety. Watching him grow from that mild-mannered do-gooder liberal architect into that cannon-toting wielder of vigilante justice, once a Vietnam vet conscientious objector (one of the great ads from book to film), too meek to stand up to a single threatening minority street kid wielding a switchblade, to eventually taking on entire armies of well-armed gangster families, there is something sublime about watching him finally walk off triumphantly (despite the fact that everyone he’s ever loved has been slaughtered, one at a time), disappearing into the smoke created from the carnage of justice he’s left behind and leaving behind a few final words to that authority figure who he has hopefully taught a thing or two to.
‘Hey Lieutenant, if you need any help, give me a call.’