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.