Bronson’s Rich: Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987, directed by J. Lee Thompson)


To quote The Main With No Name, “When a man’s got money in his pocket, he begins to appreciate peace.”

Two years have passed since Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) last visited and cleaned up New York.  He is back in Los Angeles, the president of his own successful architectural firm.  Now a rich man, he has retired from killing criminals, though he still has dreams where he shoots muggers in parking garages.  Paul has a new girlfriend, journalist Karen Sheldon (Kay Lenz).  When Karen’s teenage daughter, Erica (Dana Barron), dies of a cocaine overdose, it’s time for Paul to get his gun out of storage and blow away a drug dealer.

Shortly after shooting that drug dealer, Paul finds a note on his front porch.  “I know who you are,” it reads.  Paul then gets a call from a mysterious man (John P. Ryan) who identifies himself as being a reclusive millionaire named Nathan White.  Nathan explains that his daughter also died of a cocaine overdose.  He wants to hire Paul to take out not just the drug dealers but also the men behind the dealers, the bosses.  Using his vast resources, Nathan has prepared a file on every major drug operation in Los Angeles.  He offers to share the information with Paul.

“I’ll need a few days to think about it,” Paul says but we all know he’s going to accept Nathan’s offer just as surely as we know that Nathan White has an ulterior motive that won’t be revealed until the movie’s final twenty minutes.

For the first time, Paul is no longer just targeting muggers and other street criminals.  This time, Paul is going after the guys in charge and trying to bring an end to drug trade once and for all.  (The idea that the best way to win the war on drugs was just to kill anyone involved in the drug trade was a very popular one in the late 80s.)  L.A.’s two major drug cartels are led by Ed Zacharias (Perry Lopez) and the Romero Brothers (Mike Moroff and Dan Ferro).  Along with their own activities, Paul and Young work the turn the two cartels against each other.

It’s not just the criminals that have changed in Death Wish 4.  Paul has changed, too.  Paul used to just shoot criminals and run away.  In Death Wish 4, he gets more creative.  He sneaks into Zacharias’s mansion and bugs the phone so that he can keep track of what’s going down.  When it comes time to kill a table full of drug dealers (one of whom is played by Danny Trejo), Paul doesn’t shoot them up.  Instead, he sends them a bottle of champagne that explodes when they open it.  By the end of the movie, Paul is blowing away the bad guys with a grenade launcher!  How many former conscientious objectors can brag about that?

The biggest difference between Death Wish 4 and the films that came before it is the absence of director Michael Winner.  Winner and Bronson had a falling out following Death Wish 3 and, as a result, Winner had little interest in returning to the franchise.  Instead, Winner was replaced by J. Lee Thompson, who had already directed Bronson in several other Cannon films.  As a result, Death Wish 4 is less “heavy” than the previous Death Wish films.  Whereas Winner’s direction often felt mean-spirited and exploitive, Thompson plays up the film’s sense of airy adventure.

Though it barely made a profit at the box office and has been dismissed by critics, Death Wish 4 is an enjoyable chapter in Paul’s story.  If you’re looking for mindless 80s mayhem, Death Wish 4 gets the job done with admirable efficiency.  It would have made a great ending for the franchise but Bronson would return to the role one last time.

Tomorrow: Death Wish V: The Face of Death!

Bronson’s Old: Death Wish 3 (1985, directed by Michael Winner)


To quote Roger Murtaugh, “I’m too old for this shit.”

It has been ten years since Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) left New York City and the place has gone to Hell.  It’s no longer just muggers that you have look out for.  Now, there are roving street gangs of directionless teenagers, terrorizing the elderly and forcing them to live like prisoners in their own apartment building.

One street corner now looks like a war zone, controlled by spiky-haired, face-painting punks who look like something from a Mad Max movie.  Manny Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy) rules this street corner, supported by a gang that worships him as if he was some sort of god.  Manny thinks that he is immortal but he’s just targeted the wrong person.  The gang may think that Charley (Francis Drake) is just a defenseless old man but what they don’t know is that, when Charley served in Korea, his best friend was Paul Kersey.

The past few years have been busy for Paul.  He’s killed muggers and rapists in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Kansas City and now he’s returned to New York City, to visit his old friend Charley.  Paul arrives at Charley’s apartment just in time to witness Fraker’s gang murdering him.  The gang flees and when the police arrive, they take Paul into custody.

While public defender Kathryn Davis (Deborah Raffin) tries to figure out why Paul is being held in jail, Paul has a conversation with Lt. Shriker (Ed Lauter).  Shriker remembers Paul as being the New York vigilante and he has a proposition for him.  Paul can kill as many members of Fraker’s gang as he wants, as long as he allows the police to take the credit and reports everything that he discovers to Shriker.  Paul agrees.

In the neighborhood, Paul starts to put Fraker and his gang (one of whom is played by pre-Bill and Ted Alex Winter) in their place.  In a scene borrowed from Brian Garfield’s original Death Wish novel, he uses a used car as bait to gun down two aspiring car thieves.  When Paul gets a new gun, he tests it out on a depraved mugger known as the Giggler.  Though some might call him a serial killer, Paul is soon a hero to the entire neighborhood.  Though Charley may be gone, Paul befriends the other residents of the apartment.  He shows the elderly Kaprovs how to catch anyone trying to climb through their window.  He protects Maria Rodriguez (Marina Sirtis) from the gang.  Best of all, he befriend Bennett Miller (Martin Balsam), a World War II vet who still remembers how to load a machine gun.

(Balsam and Bronson previously co-starred in The Stone Killer, though in that one Bronson was a cop and Balsam was on the other side of the law.)

He also finds time to pursue a relationship with Kathryn Davis.  This is one recurring element in the Death Wish franchise that has never made sense to me.  Paul always has a new girlfriend, despite the fact that almost every woman that he ever gets involved with ends up getting killed.  Paul also only seems to go out with women who would be upset to discover that they were dating a notorious vigilante.  In Death Wish II, he went out with a crusading journalist who was against the death penalty.  In Death Wish 3, he falls for a public defender whose job is to provide legal counsel to the very people that Paul is trying to kill.  After Death Wish 3, Paul would date yet another crusading journalist and, finally, the ex-wife of a notorious mobster.  Maybe Paul should just give up and concentrate on mourning his wife.

Michael Winner returned to direct Death Wish 3 and, this time around, he imagines New York City as being a post-apocalyptic wasteland, full of abandoned buildings and murderous scavengers.  Imagine A Clockwork Orange if Charles Bronson suddenly showed up to shoot Alex and the Droogs.  As played by Gavan O’Herlihy, Manny Fraker is the type of seemingly indestructible bad guy who can actually give Paul Kersey a challenge, something that was missing from the previous films.

The other thing that distinguishes Death Wish 3 is that it was one the only film in the franchise to directly confront an obvious truth.  Charles Bronson was 53 when the first Death Wish was released.  By the time he made Death Wish 3, he was 64 and decades older than the typical action star.  (As way of comparison, Clint Eastwood was 55 when Death Wish 3 was released and was already experimenting with less action-orientated roles.)  By partnering him with Martin Balsam and the other elderly residents of the neighborhood, Death Wish 3 not only acknowledged Bronson’s advanced age but also took advantage of it.  Death Wish 3 is a film where the old folks finally get to teach the young punks a thing or two.  If the other Death Wish films were about one man fighting a lonely war, Death Wish 3 is about a community refusing to be silenced.  The chance to put those kids in their place even seems to perk up Charles Bronson, who gives one of his best performances in Death Wish 3.

Death Wish 3 may have been roundly despised by the critics but it’s the best of the Death Wish sequels.  It made a fortune at the box office so naturally, another sequel would follow.

Tomorrow: Death Wish 4: The Crackdown!

Bronson’s Back!: Death Wish II (1982, directed by Michael Winner)


To quote John McClane, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

It has been eight years since Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) lost his wife and single-handedly cleaned up New York City.  The first Death Wish ended with Paul in Chicago, preparing to gun down a new group of criminals.  I guess Chicago didn’t take because, at the start of Death Wish II, Paul is in Los Angeles and he’s working as an architect again.  He has a new girlfriend, a bleeding heart liberal reporter named Geri (Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real-life wife) who is against the death penalty and who has no idea that Paul used to be New York’s most notorious vigilante.  Having finally been released from the mental institution, Carol (Robin Sherwood) is living with her father but is now mute.

Crime rates are soaring in Los Angeles and why not?  The legal system is more concerned with the rights of the criminals than the victims and Paul has retired from patrolling the streets.  But when a group of cartoonish thugs rape and kill his housekeeper and cause his daughter to fall out of a window while trying to escape them, Paul picks up his gun and sets out for revenge.

Death Wish II was not the first sequel to Death Wish.  Brian Garfield, the author of the novel on which Death Wish was based, never intended for Paul to be seen as a hero and was disgusted by what he saw as being the film’s glorification of violence.  As “penance,” he wrote a sequel called Death Sentence, in which Paul discovered that he had inspired an even more dangerous vigilante.  When Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus bought the rights to produce a second Death Wish film, they decided not to use Garfield’s sequel and instead went with a story that was co-written by Golan.

It’s the same basic story as the first film.  Again, Paul is a mild-mannered architect who is a liberal during the day and a gun-toting reactionary at night.  Again, it’s a home invasion and a death in the family that sets Paul off.  Again, Paul gets help from sympathetic citizens who don’t care that the police commissioner (Anthony Franciosa) wants him off the streets.  Jeff Goldblum played a rapist with a switch blade in the first film.  This time, it’s Laurence Fishburne who fills the role.  (Fishburne also carries a radio, which he eventually learns cannot be used to block bullets.)  Even Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) returns, coming down to Los Angeles to see if Paul has returned to his old ways.

The main difference between the first two Death Wish films is that Death Wish II is a Cannon film, which means that it is even less concerned with reality than the first film.  In Death Wish II, the criminals are more flamboyant, the violence is more graphic, and Paul is even more of a relentless avenger than in the first film.  In the first Death Wish, Paul threw up after fighting a mugger.  In the second Death Wish, he sees that one of the men who raped his daughter is wearing a cross, leading to the following exchange:

“Do you believe in Jesus?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, you’re going to meet him.”

BLAM!

Death Wish II is the best known of the Death Wish sequels.  It made the most money and, when I was a kid, it used to show on TV constantly.  The commercials always featured the “You believe in Jesus?” exchange and, every morning after we saw those commercials, all the kids at school would walk up to each other and say, “You believe in Jesus?  Well, you’re going to meet him.”  It drove the teachers crazy.

Overall, Death Wish II is a lousy film.  Michael Winner, who was always more concerned with getting people into the theaters than anything else, directs in a sledgehammer manner that makes his work on the first film look subtle.  He obscenely lingers over every rape and murder, leaving no doubt that he is more interested in titillating the audience than getting them to share Paul’s outrage.  The script is also weak, with Geri so poorly written that she actually gets more upset about Paul going out at night than she does when she learns that Paul’s daughter has died.  When Paul sets out to track down the gang, his method is to merely wander around Los Angeles until he stumbles across them.  It doesn’t take long for Paul to start taking them out but no one in the gang ever seems to be upset or worried that someone is obviously stalking and killing them.

There are a few good things about the film.  Charles Bronson was always a better actor than he was given credit for and it’s always fun to watch Paul try to balance his normal daily routine with his violent night life.  Whenever Geri demands to know if he’s been shooting people, Paul looks at her like he is personally offended that she could possibly think such a thing.  Also, the criminals themselves are all so cartoonishly evil that there’s never any question that Paul is doing the world a favor by gunning them down.  For many otherwise sensible viewers, a movie like Death Wish II may be bad but it is also cathartic.  It offers up a simple solution to a complex issue.  In real life, a city full of Paul Kerseys would lead to innocent people getting killed for no good reason.  But in the world of Death Wish II, no one out after nightfall is innocent so there’s no need to worry about shooting the wrong person.

Finally, the film’s score was written by the legendary Jimmy Page.  The studio wanted Isaac Hayes to do the score but Winner asked his neighbor, Page.  Page took the film, retreated into his studio, and returned with a bluesy score that would turn out to be the best thing about the movie.  The soundtrack was the only one of Page’s solo projects to be released on Led Zeppelin’s record label, Swan Song Records.

Tomorrow, Bronson returns with Death Wish 3!

A Movie A Day #356: The Delta Force (1986, directed by Menahem Golan)


Last year, at this time, I set a goal for myself.

I decided that, in 2017, I would review a movie a day and I nearly succeeded. I didn’t review a movie on the day Chris Cornell died.  I missed a few days in March due to a sinus infection.  Including the review that I’m posting below, I reviewed 356 movies in 2017.  According to the year-end stats, my most popular reviews were for Heavy Metal Parking Lot, Slaughter, Body Chemistry 3, Body Chemistry 4, and Beatlemania.

Since tomorrow will be the start of a new year, this is going to be the end of my A Movie A Day experiment.  In 2018, I’ll still be watching movies and posting reviews on this site but this is my final daily review.  For my final Movie A Day, I picked the greatest movie of all time, The Delta Force!

Produced by Cannon Films, The Delta Force starts in 1980, with a helicopter exploding in the desert.  America’s elite special missions force has been sent to Iran to rescue the men and women being held hostage in the embassy.  The mission is a disaster with the members of Delta Force barely escaping with their lives.  Captain Chuck Norris tells his commanding officer, Col. Lee Marvin, that he’s finished with letting cowardly politicians control their missions.  Chuck heads to Montana while Lee spends the next few years hitting on the bartender at his local watering hole.

In 1985, terrorists led by Robert Forster hijack an airplane and divert it to Beirut.  Among those being held hostage: Martin Balsam, Shelley Winters, Lainie Kazan, Susan Strasberg, Kim Delaney, and Bo Svenson.  The great George Kennedy plays a priest named O’Malley who, when the Jewish passengers are moved to a separate location, declares himself to be Jewish and demands to be taken too.  Jerry Lazarus is a hostage who spends the movie holding a Cabbage Patch doll that his daughter gave him for luck.  Former rat packer Joey Bishop plays a passenger who says, “Beirut was beautiful then.  Beautiful.”  Fassbinder favorite Hanna Schygulla is the stewardess who refuses to help the terrorists because, “I am German!”

In America, General Robert Vaughn activates The Delta Force to rescue the hostages and take out the terrorists.  As Lee Marvin prepares everyone (including Cannon favorite, Steve James and, in a nonspeaking role, Liam Neeson) to leave, the big question is whether Chuck Norris will come out of retirement for the mission.  Of course, he does.  Even better, he brings his motorcycle with him.

Anyone who has ever seen The Delta Force remembers Chuck’s motorcycle.  Not only did it look incredibly cool but it was also mounted with machine guns and it could fire missiles at cowardly terrorists.  It didn’t matter whether you agreed with the film’s politics were or whether you even liked the movie, everyone who watched The Delta Force wanted Chuck’s motorcycle.  As the old saying goes, “You may be cool but you’ll never be Chuck Norris firing a missile from a motorcycle cool.”

The Delta Force is really three different films.  One film, shot in the style of a disaster film, is about the hostages on the plane and their evil captors.  The second film is Lee Marvin (in his final movie role) preparing his men to storm the airplane.  The third movie is Chuck Norris chasing Robert Forster on his motorcycle.  Put those three movies together and you have the ultimate Cannon movie.  The Delta Force was even directed by Cannon’s head honcho, Menahem Golan.  (Years earlier, Golan also directed Operation Thunderbolt, an Israeli film about the raid on Entebbe, which features more than a few similarities to The Delta Force.  Golan received his first and only Oscar nomination when Operation Thunderbolt was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.)

The Delta Force is also the ultimate 80s movie.  It opens with the Carter administration fucking everything up and it ends with the Reagan administration giving Lee Marvin and Chuck Norris the greenlight to blow up some terrorists.  There is not much nuance to be found in The Delta Force but it still feels good to watch Chuck beat the bad guys.  Top that off with a shameless score from Alan Silvestri and you have one of the greatest action movies of all time.

At the end of The Delta Force, as cans of Budweiser are being passed out to rescued hostages, an extra is clearly heard to shout, “Beer!  America!”  Then everyone sings America The Beautiful.

That says it all.

A Movie A Day #329: The Fourth War (1990, directed by John Frankenheimer)


The year is 1989 and the Cold War is coming to an end.  Colonel Jack Knowles (Roy Scheider) was a hero in Vietnam but now, years later, his eagerness to fight has made him an outsider in the U.S. Army.  Most people would rather that Knowles simply retire but, as long as there are wars to be fought, Knowles will be there.  His only friend, General Hackworth (Harry Dean Stanton), arranges for Knowles to be assigned to an outpost on the  West German-Czechoslovakia border.  As soon as he arrives, Knowles starts to annoy his superior officer, Lt. Col. Clark (Tim Reid).  When Knowles sees a Czech refugee gunned down by the Soviets while making a run for the border, he unleashes his frustration by throwing a snowball at his Russian counterpart.  Like Knowles, Col. Valachev (Jurgen Prochnow) is a decorated veteran who feels lost without a war to fight.  Knowles and Valachev are soon fighting their own personal war, even at the risk of starting a full-scale conflict between their two nations.

The Fourth War was one of the handful of films that John Frankenheimer directed for Cannon Films.  Much as he did with The Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer mixes serious thrills with dark satire in The Fourth War.  Frankenheimer gets good performances from the entire cast, especially Scheider and Prochnow.  The real star of the movie is the snow-covered landscape, which Frankenheimer turns into a metaphor for the entire Cold War.  When Knowles and Valachev end up throwing punches on a frozen lake that’s breaking apart underneath their feet, it is not hard to see what Frankenheimer’s going for with this film.  Released shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Fourth War is an underrated thriller that deserves to be rediscovered.

A Movie A Day #320: Dangerously Close (1986, directed by Albert Pyun)


Vista Verde, an exclusive suburban high school in California, has a problem.  Some of the students have a bad attitude.  Some of them are experimenting with drugs.  Graffiti is showing up all over the school.  What better way to return peace to Vista Verde than for a bunch of WASPy rich kids and other jocks to organize into a secret vigilante force?  The headmaster thinks that it’s a great idea and soon “The Sentinels” are holding mock trials and shooting the other students with paintball guns.  One bad kid even turns up dead.  Graffiti is no joke.

The leader of the Sentinels is a rich kid named Randy (John Stockwell, who also co-wrote the script).  Randy knows the importance of good PR so he befriend the editor of the school newspaper, Donny (J. Eddie Peck).  Donny may not be rich but, because of his amazing journalism skills, he has been allowed to attend Vista Verde as a magnet student.  At first, Donny is skeptical of The Sentinels but he soon finds himself seduced by not only Randy’s wealthy lifestyle but also by Randy’s beautiful girlfriend (Carey Lowell).  Meanwhile, Donny’s friend Krooger (Bradford Bancroft) not only listens to punk music but also has a mohawk so he naturally becomes the latest target of the Sentinels.

A teen film with a conscience, Dangerously Close was one of the better films to come out of the Cannon Group in the mid-80s.  The script is smarter than the average 80s teen film and Albert Pyun’s slick direction captures the appeal of being young and rich in the suburbs.  Stockwell, Peck, and Lowell all give better than average performances  and there is actually some unexpected depth to Stockwell and Peck’s friendship.  Stockwell does not play Randy as just being a typical rich villain.  Instead, he is someone who thinks he’s doing the right thing even when he’s not.

The cast is full of faces that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been a fan of 80s high school films.  Keep an eye out for Thom Matthews, Don Michael Paul, Gerard Christopher, Miguel Nunez, Jr., and DeeDee Pfeiffer, all doing their part to keep the halls of Vista Verde safe.

 

A Movie A Day #319: Northville Cemetery Massacre (1976, directed by Thomas L. Dyke and William Dear)


You can’t always tell a book by its cover and that is the case with the Spirits, the nicest motorcycle gang to ever roll across America’s highways.  When they come across an old couple on the side of the road with a flat tire, they don’t rob the couple.  Instead, they change the tire.  When they come across a young man named Chris (David Hyrly, who is overdubbed by a young Nick Nolte), they invite him to join them on their journey.  When they are arrested, they sit in jail and roll a joint.  The Spirits are solid dudes.  But because they are rebels who live outside of straight society, they will always be picked on by the Man.  After a redneck deputy rapes the Chris’s girlfriend, the deputy blames the Spirits.  Soon, the Spirits find themselves under attack and are violently picked off one by one.  In self-defense, the Spirits start to arm themselves.  It all comes to a head in a violent confrontation in Northville Cemetery.

Made for a miniscule budget. featuring a largely amateur cast, and graphically violent, Northville Cemetery Massacre is an overlooked masterpiece, the type of movie that Sam Peckinpah would have made if he had worked on AIP biker movies instead of westerns.  The Spirits are innocent and, as long as no one hassles them, peaceful but the rest of the world only sees their motorcycles and their leather jackets.  The rapist deputy is one of the most evil lawmen in film history but because he wears a uniform and know the right people, he knows that he will never have to face justice.  The ambiguous ending proves that the filmmaker’s had more on their mind than just cashing in one the tail end of the biker genre’s popularity.  Adding to the film’s strength is a country-rock score from former Monkee Mike Nesmith and the casting of members of a real-life motorcycle club, the Scorpions.  What the Scorpions may have lacked in acting ability, they made up for in authenticity.

Northville Cemetery Massacre was made in the early 70s but it wasn’t released by Cannon Films until 1976, at which point the biker genre was close to dead.  Northville Cemetery Massacre provided audiences with one last chance to get their motor running, head out on the highway, and look for adventure with smoke and lightning and heavy metal thunder.