Left with no way to top the inspired lunacy of Death Wish 3, the Cannon Group decided to shake up the formula with the fourth entry. Gone is the pattern of Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) getting exposed to some sort of personal tragedy that leads to him surveying the creep-infested streets of an urban blight zone and then killing everyone in his sight. Instead, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown unspools more like a Grand Theft Auto game than a traditional Death Wish film, driven by imaginative action set-piece vignettes that build to a moderately compelling overall story.
Paul Kersey has returned to Los Angeles, rebuilt his architecture firm, and started dating a journalist, Karen (Kay Lenz). Within the first few minutes of the film, Karen’s daughter (Dana Barron, the original Audrey from National Lampoon’s Vacation) has overdosed on cocaine and lies comatose in a hospital bed. Karen becomes obsessed with pursuing the cocaine epidemic as a news story, against the wishes of her disinterested editor. However, Hearst-like publishing magnate Nathan White (John P. Ryan of It’s Alive, whose late-period career involved an embarrassing number of Cannon productions) has a similar personal investment in “cracking down” on cocaine. He knows who Paul Kersey really is, and they make an arrangement: Nathan will provide the pertinent details of all the top players in the coke trade, and Paul will take action.
Once the stage has been set, the film moves from one sequence to another, with Nathan narrating the pertinent details and Paul taking out the trash. In these scenes, director J. Lee Thompson (who took over for Michael Winner as a result of Bronson’s disgust with Winner’s handling of Death Wish 3) manages to return to the first film’s suspense-thriller roots, putting Paul in actual jeopardy and finding clever ways to get him out of each situation. As the body count increases, Detectives Reiner and Nozaki (George Dickerson and Soon-Tek Oh, respectively) target Paul as a possible vigilante.
This film adds another component lacking in the previous sequels: guilt. It opens with an absurd sequence that only becomes marginally less silly when we learn Paul’s having a nightmare. I’ve captured it in the video clip below:
Warning: In keeping with Death Wish traditions, this scene includes some particularly harrowing violence against a woman. Sensitive viewers should steer clear. Fans of BMW might also want to steer clear, as this scene features possibly the worst product placement for their fine automobiles in the history of cinema.
Two key moments occur in this shoddily edited sequence. The first: A thug barks, “Who the fuck are you?” “Death,” Paul Kersey answers before shooting them all. The second: Paul flips over his final victim to reveal his face, and the face he sees is his own.
It’s a moment unlike anything else found in the Death Wish series and hints that, perhaps, Paul doesn’t feel he’s any better than the men he kills. Although the nightmare is never mentioned again, the scene seems to inform Bronson’s performance. He’s lost the moral righteousness of the first three films and operates with a bit more thoughtfulness. This ties quite effectively into the film’s idea of taking on major players instead of street thugs. In place of the mesh half-shirts, painted faces, and inverted mohawks, Death Wish 4 introduces a world of tuxedos, ballet tickets, and lavish garden parties. Like The Wire (yes, I am about to compare Death Wish 4: The Crackdown to The Wire), Paul has finally learned that the only way to have a real effect is to cut off the head of the snake, not the tail.
The action sequences have more variety than in the previous films. Paul actually employs disguises (something he hasn’t done since the second film) to infiltrate the cocaine ring, posing as waiters and forklift drivers to gain access to the inner circle. After attacking a video store (its walls adorned with posters of other Cannon films, making it an underfunded independent store that will undoubtedly be swallowed up by Blockbuster within months) that sells cocaine out of its back room, Paul sneaks into a posh party hosted by wealthy gangster Ed Zacharias (Perry Lopez). He finds creative ways to kill Zacharias’s security force, fakes a meeting between two rival gangs, and starts a war between the two of them. He even uncovers crooked cops on Zacharias’s payroll.
Although not quite as good as the first film or as mind-boggling as the third, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown is a solid action film that does a nice job of putting a fresh spin on both the franchise and Paul’s character. Any gamers out there will be impressed to learn that the very basic structure implemented in the Grand Theft Auto games and their knockoffs (stick characters on wildly varied, action-packed missions prefaced only by a brief explanation of who the target is, how they fit into the overall story, and why they need to die) can succeed as a film.