When Justice Fails (1999, directed by Allan A. Goldstein)


In New York City, two men have been murdered in the same ritualistic way.  Both of the men were accused rapists who beat the system, getting their charges dismissed due to legal technicalities.  When detectives Tom Chaney (Jeff Fahey) and Rod Lambeau (Carl Marotte) discover that assistant D.A. Katy Wesson (Marlee Matlin) was the prosecutor on both of the dead men’s cases, she becomes their number one suspect.  However, Chaney has his doubt about her guilt, especially after he goes on a few dates and starts sleeping with her.  Katy is an enigma with a traumatic childhood and penchant for picking up men in nightclubs but is she a murderer?  Other suspects include a creepy artist named Josh (Charles Powell), who also works as the deaf Katy’s interpreter, and Katy’s overdramatic mother (Monique Mercure).

That a direct-to-video thriller from 1999 would be a rip-off of Basic Instinct is not a shock.  Almost every thriller released between 1992 and 2000 was at least partially cloned from Basic Instinct.  What sets When Justice Fails apart is that it’s probably the only Basic Instinct clone to actually feature it’s two main characters discussing the ending of Basic Instinct post-coitus.  (For the record, Chaney thinks that the final shot means that Sharon Stone was the murderer while Katy says that the ice pick showed that the director was playing a joke on the audience.)  I guess When Justice Fails deserves some credit for being willing to so directly acknowledge the film that inspired it but, when you’re a mediocre film, you probably don’t want to intentionally remind audiences that they could be watching something better.

When Justice Fails actually gets off to a good start, with Jeff Fahey playing another one of his driven loners and Marlee Matlin really committing to the role of the film’s femme fatale.  The movie even manages to avoid the usual awkwardness that comes from having a hearing character repeating everything that a deaf character either signs or writes down.  The early scenes have a Law & Order feel to them, with Chaney and Lambeau interviewing witnesses on the busy streets of New York and also talking to a world-weary coroner.  It would have been a surprise if Stephen Hill had suddenly shown up and said, “Your case is weak and this trial could drag on through election day.  Make him an offer.  Man 1.  Depraved indifference.”

Unfortunately, once Chaney sleeps with Katy, the movie becomes increasingly implausible and goes downhill.  There just aren’t enough suspects to generate any suspense over who the murderer is ultimately going to turn out to be.  The surprise at the end is only a surprise because it didn’t occur to Chaney to run a routine background check on one of his suspects, something that I would think most cops would do at the start of a murder investigation.  Marlee Matlin is a terrific actress who is always interesting to watch but When Justice Fails ultimately fails to be very memorable.

Bronson One Last Time: Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994, directed by Allen Goldstein)


To quote Geoffrey Chaucer, “All good things must come to an end.”

Death Wish V: The Face of Death marked the end of the original Death Wish franchise, concluding the violent saga of Paul Kersey 20 years after it began.  It probably should have ended sooner.

After the box office failure of Death Wish IV and the subsequent bankruptcy of Cannon Films, future plans for the Death Wish franchise were put on hold.  After the collapse of Cannon, Menahem Golan started a new production company, 21st Century Film Corporation.  In 1993, needing a hit and seeing that the previous Death Wish films were still popular on video, Golan announced that Paul Kersey would finally return in Death Wish V: The Face of Death.  Charles Bronson also returned, though he was now 72 years old and in poor health.  Death Wish V would also mark the end of Bronson’s feature film career.  He would make appearances in a few television movies before subsequently retiring from acting.

Death Wish V finds Paul in the witness protection program.  His latest girlfriend, Olivia (Lesley-Anne Down), just happens to be the ex-wife of a psychotic mobster named Tommy O’Shea (Michael Parks).  Throughout the entire franchise, the Death Wish films argued that crime is so out of control that no one was safe and that Paul had no choice but to pick up a gun and shoot muggers.  But, judging from Death Wish V, Paul just seems to have incredibly bad luck.  What are the odds that a mild-mannered architect would lose his wife, his maid, his daughter, his best friend from the war, his next two girlfriends, and then end up dating the ex-wife of New York City’s craziest gangster?

The district attorney’s office wants Olivia to testify against her ex-husband so Tommy gets his henchman, the dandruff-prone Freddie Flakes (Robert Joy), to kill her.  Looks like it’s time for New York’s favorite vigilante to launch a one-man war against the Mafia!

The only problem is that New York’s favorite vigilante is too old to chase people down dark alleys and shoot them.  He has to get creative, which means using everything from poisoned cannoli to a vat of acid to take out his targets.  One gangster is killed by an exploding soccer ball!

With both Bronson and Lesley-Anne Down giving an indifferent performances, it is up to the supporting cast to keep the movie interesting.  Appearing here after his bravura turn as Jean Renault in Twin Peaks but before Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino introduced him to a whole new generation of filmgoers, Michael Parks is flamboyantly evil as Tommy O’Shea and injects the movie with what little life that it has.  Speaking of Twin Peaks alumni, Kenneth Welsh (who played Windom Earle in the last few episodes of season 2) plays this installment’s understanding police detective.  Saul Rubinek plays the district attorney who is willing to look the other way when it comes to killing gangsters.

Dull and cheap-looking, Death Wish V was a box office bomb and it brought the original franchise to a definite end.  Will the Eli Roth/Bruce Willis reboot of Death Wish also lead to a reboot of the franchise?  Time will tell!