Death Wish was a solid, seri­ous (albeit sor­did) affair. Death Wish 2 was grind­house fare at its nas­ti­est and Death Wish 3 took things into the realm of absurd self-par­o­dy. It was inevitable that the series would go down­hill from there on but that didn’t stop the go-go boys of cin­e­ma, Golan and Globus, from mak­ing a 4th install­ment. The end result is not as baro­que­ly insane as Death Wish 3 but it has an odd­ball tone that makes an inter­est­ing if not always suc­cess­ful arti­fact from the lat­ter-day era of Cannon pro­duc­tions.

Death Wish 4 reteamed Bronson with J. Lee Thompson, a direc­tor who fre­quent­ly served as his cin­e­mat­ic wing­man in the world of sleazy 1980’s action flicks (for more from this duo, see 10 To Midnight, The Evil That Men Do and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects). In this install­ment, archi­tect and part-time vig­i­lante Paul Kersey (Bronson) is liv­ing in L.A. and romanc­ing sin­gle mom reporter Karen Sheldon (Kay Lenz). When her daugh­ter dies from a crack over­dose, he bumps off the deal­er and unwit­ting­ly attracts the atten­tion of news­pa­per mogul Nathan White (John P. Ryan).

White black­mails Kersey into tak­ing on the two drug syn­di­cates that con­trol Los Angeles (his daugh­ter also died from an over­dose).  The would-be black­mail turns into a part­ner­ship when Kersey glad­ly takes the gig, play­ing one off again­st the oth­er so he can move in and bump them off when the time is right. Fleshing out this thread­bare Yojimbo ripoff sce­nar­io is a sub­plot involv­ing two cops on Kersey’s trail and a final twist that allows for anoth­er shootout.

The result­ing film is a strange ani­mal.  Death Wish 4 isn’t as unabashed­ly insane as Death Wish 3 but it still packs a kitschy punch all its own because it has its own nar­ra­tive schiz­o­phre­nia.  It makes attempts to return to the sto­ry-dri­ven approach of the first two films but is full of odd, self-con­scious touch­es that make it veer into campi­ness. For instance, the action set­pieces take place in odd set­tings like an amuse­ment park and a roller rink and there are odd detours like a scene with a crook and his wife bick­er­ing before Kersey steps in to kill the man (when she says “I wish he would drop dead,” the poor bas­tard plunges to his death).

This schiz­o­phre­nia is com­pound­ed by Thompson’s direc­to­ri­al approach, which nev­er com­mits to a par­tic­u­lar tone. Truth be told, Thompson’s work isn’t as ener­get­ic or inspired as it is on his oth­er Cannon-era Bronson pot­boil­ers.  He han­dles the action well but is hurt by some obvi­ous bud­getary cor­ner-cut­ting that leads him to be a bit slop­py with some key ele­ments of the film. For instance, there are some cheap squibs, includ­ing a few you can see before they go off, and a hilar­i­ous­ly bad opti­cal effect that stands in for an intend­ed explo­sion.  He also set­tled for a lousy musi­cal score that is often inap­pro­pri­ate to the action on screen.  If Michael Winner seemed glee­ful­ly mali­cious behind the cam­era on Death Wish 3, Thompson just seems weary here.

That weari­ness car­ries over to the per­for­mances. Bronson goes through his paces in a com­pe­tent but sleepy-eyed man­ner and vir­tu­al­ly every crook and sup­port per­for­mance is allowed to wild­ly over­act. Kay Lenz is decent but under­used (grant­ed, Kersey’s love inter­ests sel­dom get much screen time in the­se films). The only actor who real­ly cops to this film’s inher­ent daft­ness is Ryan, who gives his all to his role of the news­pa­per­man with a secret.  He’s chew­ing scenery in a way an A-lev­el pro­duc­tion wouldn’t allow but he brings a real verve to his work that makes him fun to watch.

However, despite the­se issues, Death Wish 4 is not bad as a time-killer for the grind­house set: it has a pro­fes­sion­al pace and plen­ty of action sequences, includ­ing a fair­ly explo­sive show­down between the two drug-run­ner out­fits.  That said, the real reward for the patient trash-fiend here lies in all the quirky details: the scene where the daugh­ter is talked into using crack plays like an out­take from a sleazy after­school spe­cial, an explo­sive device plant­ed in a bot­tle of wine(!), a scene between Bronson and a pre–Machete Danny Trejo and Bronson’s show­down with the final vil­lain — which is, uh, unique­ly pyrotech­nic.

In short, this one’s main­ly for the Death Wish series cultists — and if they man­age their expec­ta­tions, there’s a lit­tle sleazy fun to be mined amid­st its tired atmos­phere.