DEATH WISH V: A Quirky Closer For A Vigilante’s Saga

Once you’ve reached the fifth film in a series, maintaining originality or freshness are no longer the concerns they once were. If someone’s stuck with the series that long, you don’t have to give the audience additional surprises. They know whether or not they’re going to sign on. At that point, the gig is simply to keep the proceedings entertaining for the core audience that remains.

Thus, it’s a pleasure for genre film trainspotters when a film series gets this far and delivers a few unexpected treats while also delivering the expected goods. An interesting example of this balancing act is Death Wish V, Charles Bronson’s final film as hard-working big screen vigilante, Paul Kersey. This time, he’s living in New York and pursuing a romance with fashion designer Olivia (Lesley-Anne Down). Unfortunately, her ex is mobster Tommy O’Shea (Michael Parks) and he’s eager to take both her successful fashion label and her daugher (Erica Fairfield). When O’Shea gets angry enough to kill his ex, Kersey returns to his gun-toting vigilante ways.

The results are way better than the fifth film in a series deserves to be.  The broad strokes of the plot are as boilerplate as it gets but Death Wish V gets very interesting in the execution of those story beats. For instance, Tommy O’Shea’s chosen enforcer is Freddie Flakes (Robert Joy), an assassin who is neurotic about a dandruff issue and isn’t above resorting to cross-dressing to pull off a bit of nasty business. The film also has Kersey using all manner of exotic methods to take down the bad guys: food, remote control toys, even industrial packaging devices.

The playfulness extends to the filmmaking itself.  Director/co-writer Allan Goldstein treats the action in a baroque, stylized manner that distinguishes it from the grungy approach of the Michael Winner sequels and builds upon the comic-book style used in Death Wish IV.  The results are pretty slick for a quickie from the end of the Canuxploitation era, with an elaborate musical score by Terry Plumeri and some impressive stunt work (look out for a great stunt where a cop is hit by a car in slo-mo).

Death Wish V was shot in the Great White North to save on the budget but this actually works in its favor. Canada isn’t a convincing substitute for New York City but you do get a cast of Canadian genre pros, all having a blast filling the support roles. For example, the reliable Saul Rubinek plays a lawyer, Twin Peaks’ own “Windom Earle” Kenneth Welsh pops up as a cop and Chuck Shamata, whom exploitation fans will know from Death Weekend, seems to be living out all his goombah fantasies as one of O’Shea’s made men.

Most importantly, Bronson really seems to be enjoying himself here.  With the sleaze downplayed, he brings a deadpan comic flair to bolster the film’s outre approach: for proof, look out for a memorable scene in an Italian restaurant when he begins his revenge campaign.  He also has a worthy villain to go up against in Parks, who gives an energetic, sly Method-style treatment to his villain role that syncs up nicely with Goldstein’s offbeat approach.  Like the other principals in the cast, he takes delight in subverting the formula and his joy in the work is contagious.

In short, Death Wish V is the most consistently entertaining of the sequels and also has the most inspired work from Bronson in any of the sequels. If you’ve put off this late-in-the-game sequel, it’s time to catch up.

Blu-Ray Notes: this film has had a lot of subpar, cheap-o DVD’s over the years but Bronson fans can get a blu-ray worthy of their hero with Umbrella Entertainment’s recent double-feature blu-ray of Death Wish parts IV and V.  Both films look great, the disc is region-free and, best of all, each film has a commentary track by Bronson expert Paul Talbot.  Simply put, this is a necessary purchase for series fans.

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