The Face of Retirement.
Charles Bronson once acted alongside Clint Eastwood in 1965, in an episode of Clint’s TV series RAWHIDE. Two young men at the dawn of their toughguy careers. Bronson has been chasing Eastwood ever since. Certainly not consciously, and I’m sure they’d be the last to cop to the unspoken rivalry, but it was there all right in public perception.
He was once Harmonica, Chato, The Mechanic, Mr. Majestyk; now Charles Bronson is DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH. (Uh, you mean his face looks like he’s going to keel over and die?) His voice is frail, his gait is slow, and he wears the nicest cardigans over his paunch… Oh wait, you mean HE’S the “face of death” to bad guys!?…
Whereas Eastwood at 70 could still convincingly knock a guy out (in SPACE COWBOYS), when 73-year-old Bronson does it here, it took about three weeks to edit together all the body-doubles and camera angles and foley and footwork to make one haymaker look real.
After Bronson completed the first DEATH WISH in 1974 (which in itself was a reaction to Eastwood’s DIRTY HARRY, but much simpler in theme), he should have abandoned the series when the studios could not secure the appropriate funding for the sequels, to keep his toughguy legacy abreast of Eastwood’s. He made quite a few movies between each DEATH WISH sequel, yet those other movies never made a hit, and they were all sullied by his participation in the DEATH WISH sequels, which would garner Bronson simultaneous attention and derision, becoming the laughingstock of his toughguy career.
And here we are, 20 years later, at the last in line, DEATH WISH V (where, for some inexplicable reason, we’re back to Roman numerals, when the series used Arabic numerals for 3 and 4 and Roman for II – is anyone at the studios paying attention to anything?!).
Is V as bad as II, 3 or 4? Yes, uh, I mean, si.
With a budget of only $5 million (thems TV dollars), even the lackluster director of II and 3, Michael Winner, could not be coaxed back. So those TV dollars hired TV director of no renown, Allan Goldstein, who tries to get creative at the worst of times: during a funeral scene, he ramps a camera down the nave, tracking the symmetrical rows of seated gangsters on either side as they’re drawing their guns on a kid walking into the church. It’s almost Tarantino-cool, if it weren’t music-video-stupid.
Architect Paul Kersey (Bronson), is back in his hometown of New York, where all the cops know him as the vigilante from 1974. His fashionista fiancé Olivia (Lesley-Anne Down) is being terrorized by her ex-husband, money-laundering gangster Tommy O’Shea (Michael Parks, who’s bad acting is trying to convey either indigestion or callous evil, I can’t tell which). The manager at Olivia’s fashion warehouse is not laundering money fast enough for O’Shea, so O’Shea tortures him, inflaming Olivia’s ire. To shut her up, O’Shea has Olivia disfigured and then killed, and takes legal possession of their daughter, to the heartbreak and outrage of Kersey (who was about to become the girl’s adoptive father). Actually, maybe heartbreak and outrage are two emotions too many for Kersey; intense reactions in DEATH WISH movies tend toward the “eating ice cream too fast” expression.
We ponder at the lack of judgment Olivia displayed in being married to a one-dimensional villain like O’Shea. What did she see in him? This is not one of those thoughtful movies that allows the villain moral ambiguity; nope, he’s just straight-up cartoon evil. Or gastric reflux. So we don’t feel much sympathy for the stuntman who falls off the roof dressed as Olivia in a dress and wig… Oh, that was meant to be Olivia, I get it! Don’t let me spoil the illusion, guys… do continue…
Of course, the stuntman dying in Olivia’s dress sends Kersey into a vigilante rage, and even the presence/advice of his DA friend (Saul Rubinek) won’t curb his now-pudgy gunhand. He’s gravitated back to snub-nose pistols, as opposed to trying to outgun Dirty Harry. (In DW3, Kersey would premiere his “.475 Wildey Magnum” just to take a swipe at Harry’s weapon of choice).
Waitasecond! – Saul Rubinek?! His presence reminds us of Eastwood’s greatest insult to Bronson: Just 2 years ago, Rubinek played W.W. Beauchamp in Eastwood’s Oscar-winning operatic Western elegy UNFORGIVEN. While Bronson is doing this. Rubinek is trying hard to bring gravitas, but then his lawyer partner (Miguel Sandoval) is killed and he slips and bashes his face on “eating ice cream too fast.” In UNFORGIVEN, Rubinek’s partner is also shot, and he reacts compellingly, not ice-creamily. Since we are comparing the same man in same circumstances in both films, we can safely lay the blame for his reaction here at the feet of the director!
The story has potential – creative kills and R-rated for gore and nudity – but the acting and directing are appalling, accompanied by a generic score that sounds like a 70s carpet commercial. We know the budget is low, but it looks like they’re just printing the first take where Bronson reads all the words on the page correctly. When Kersey threatens into a walkie-talkie, “I’m comin’ for you!” it sounds like he’s reciting a cooking recipe.
And the creative kills are staged like a school play: poisoning a crook’s cannoli means banking on the crook to visit the bathroom and leave his cannoli on the table for Kersey to rush over and sprinkle cyanide on it; then the guy scarfs it into his mouth without swallowing. Who eats this way?! The fat pig clearly has four mouthfuls in his cheeks while he’s pretending to gag on the poison. Dude, that’s not the cyanide, you’re just choking from trying to swallow four mouthfuls at once.
In another kill, Kersey uses a radio-controlled soccer ball to explode in a crook’s face. Certainly no less goofy than Dirty Harry being chased by a radio-controlled toy car in THE DEAD POOL (1988).
Oh, and did I mention that DEATH WISH 4 (1987) is ripped off Eastwood’s FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964)?
At the fashion warehouse, there’s a pulping machine on a conveyor belt, because you always need those machines at a fashion warehouse. And there’s the ever-necessary giant open tub of acid, because what would a fashion warehouse be without one?
Conveniently, O’Shea’s right-hand man goes into the pulper, and O’Shea himself takes the acid bath (after he’s cut in the face unconvincingly by Kersey with a broken bottle prop).
In this simplistic movie, is it any wonder the writers spare no thought to the complexities of being a vigilante in a society of laws? There’s absolutely no doubt that Kersey is killing these crooks with no due process, yet – no repercussions from the cops or DA. Earlier, the Lieutenant (Kenneth Welsh) warily asks Kersey, “You’re not going back to your old ways, are you?” But there’s no weight behind the question, because the Lieutenant doesn’t intervene either way. And Kersey even makes a joke about it in the end, “Lieutenant, if you need any help, give me a call.” Ha ha! Because he’s a vigilante that is doing good when the law restricts the cops from doing so. Ha ha! Maybe he thinks he’s The Batman.
In the final telling, Eastwood and Bronson again share something in common after all these years. Eastwood’s monument on the psychological carnage of vigilantism is called UNFORGIVEN, and the grade-school treatment of Bronson’s vigilantism makes this whole movie’s existence – unforgiven…