“As long as Kersey’s breathing, he’s dangerous.”
The fourth instalment in the Death Wish franchise via Cannon Films offers up a number of departures from the first three films. First off it moves series star, Charles Bronson, from gunning down street vermin in seedy back alleys instead turning him into a professional killer akin to his 1972 classic The Mechanic or better still his assassin in the criminally under appreciated The Evil That Men Do released in 1984. DW4 is also plot heavy borrowing a key component from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Finally, Bronson is no longer being directed by Michael Winner who helmed the first three films. This time out it’s J. Lee Thompson taking over the directing reigns for his 7th collaboration with the mustached icon of action films.
“Anybody connected to drugs deserves to die. They have to be stopped Kersey.”
Following an intro that should satisfy Bronson fans eager to see our man in action, his Kersey character is shown to be in a new relationship with the always attractive Kay Lenz who has a daughter of her own. Tragically Kay’s daughter (Dana Barron) will OD moments into the film which will send our vigilante into action quicker than Vincent Gardenia can catch a cold.
Cue the super hero music theme on the soundtrack as Charlie guns down the drug dealer responsible for the young girls death in a spectacularly electric fashion.
I mentioned there’s plenty of plot tossed into the screenplay from Gail Morgan Hickman. Thankfully that includes the two detectives assigned to the case of the dead dealer played by Soon-Teck Oh and George Dickerson. Turns out that ballistics has identified the bullet as coming from the same gun that killed a mugger a couple years back. The pair agree that the infamous “Vigilante” is back at work and they’ve got a good lead as to finding out his true identity.
Time to bring in that Yojimbo angle. Bronson is approached by John P. Ryan portraying a wealthy newspaper owner to do his killing for him in the fight against drugs on the streets by targeting the men at the top of the food change bringing them into the country and putting them out on the street. There are two mob families involved. One run by Perry Lopez, the other by two brothers, Mike Moroff and Dan Ferro.
The two families have formed an uneasy alliance but like Mifune and Eastwood before him, Bronson, with some well placed kills will set the families up to take each other out in a violent gangland battle. And so the body count begins to rise.
In short order Bronson’s kill count is going to top 20 by the half way point and that includes Machete himself, Danny Trejo, playing one of Lopez’s ace soldiers. Trejo would get a second chance to appear opposite Bronson in 1989’s Kinjite as well on his way to becoming one of the most recognizable faces in movies over the past few decades following his film debut in 1985’s Runaway Train that also costarred John P. Ryan.
While nowhere near as over the top as DW3 which has quickly become the cult favorite of the series, part 4 has some great tongue in cheek sequences and one liners to keep up with the action film genre of the era. Thankfully it doesn’t include any Michael Winner directed rape scenes of the exploitation type.
John P. Ryan? Surely anyone familiar with the career of Mr. Ryan is fully aware that he is rarely cast in a good guy role. Look no further than the aforementioned classic of 1985, Runaway Train. So one shouldn’t be surprised at the final twist that will see Bronson gunning for the man who has used him to eliminate the competition in the world of dealing drugs. Kudos to actor Ryan who goes from the soft spoken elderly gent looking to Bronson in his fight against crime to the power hungry psychopath in scene stealing fashion. It’s as if he’s channeled his inner James Cagney/Cody Jarrett barking orders and pulling triggers as we race towards the explosive climax.
I’d seen DW4 at the theater on opening night and a number of times since. Always looking for something different I came away impressed with the cast assembled behind Bronson for this Golan-Globus production. Ryan was at the top of his game during this period having just played the heavy opposite Cannon’s rising action star, Michael Dudikoff, in the entertaining Avenging Force. Don’t overlook John’s final film appearance either which came in the excellent crime thriller, Bound, released in 1996.
Kay Lenz is a long time favorite of mine thanks to her starring role opposite Jan-Michael Vincent in the must see drive-in classic of 1975, White Line Fever. Soon-Teck Oh is a welcome addition to any film project and again, in this film that offers plenty of plot points for what is basically a Cannon genre picture, his role is a good one offering up a twist in his hunt for the true identity of the Vigilante.
Perry Lopez who began his film career in 1954 actually had a role in Drum Beat that same year. The film that proved to be Bronson’s breakthrough playing the villain to Alan Ladd’s good guy and was also the first film to feature actor Charles Buchinsky’s newly christened screen name of Bronson. Lopez would also turn up as Bronson’s partner when the pair played detectives in 89’s Kinjite. He is perhaps best known for playing cop to Jack Nicholson’s P.I. in Chinatown (1974).
Worth noting is the fact that this doesn’t feel like a Death Wish picture to me aside from the title, the leading man and his character’s name. With a twist or rewrite Cannon could just as easily have starred Bronson in a movie titled The Crackdown as a hired killer but then you don’t have that built in marketing tool. The Death Wish brand in the title. I suppose the same can be said of the swan song of the series that would find it’s way to movie screens in 1994.
Director J. Lee Thompson who gave us classics including The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear would helm just two more features before his retirement. His 8th and 9th Bronson films. Messenger of Death and Kinjite : Forbidden Subjects.
Easy to locate on VHS, DVD and blu ray if you’re a looking to catch up on the tortured love life of Paul Kersey. And just in case you’re wondering, yes I do have an original one sheet tucked away. But you already knew that.