Death Wish II / Death Wish 3 / Death Wish 4: The Crackdown Blu-ray Reviews: The Cannon Days

Five years. Three films. One ass-kicking elderly star.
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It took eight years for someone to make a sequel to the original film adaptation of Brian Garfield's novel, Death Wish. To this day, many speculate whether or not the film should have even bore a sequel — let alone the entire five-film franchise that came to pass over an impressive twenty-year span. Whereas the classic 1974 Charles Bronson revenge flick could have very well remained a stalwart and standout film to moviegoers and scholars alike, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — the boys behind the notorious production company of Cannon Films — had other ideas: mainly, to make a whole lotta moolah.

And make moolah they did, too: cranking out three follow-up features from 1982 to 1987 — a trio of movies that turned an otherwise respectable industry of action films on its side in the process with their wild over-sensationalized violence, crazy film editing that can truly give one a bad case of whiplash, and a tired and almost burnt-out movie star who proved he could still slap someone silly even in his '60s. That man, of course, is the one and only Charles Bronson: the man who Italian director Sergio Leone once claimed to be "the greatest actor I ever worked with." Naturally, I speculate that he must have said that before Bronson ever signed a contract with Cannon Films.

Now, first off, let me say that the first Death Wish is, in my opinion, a true cult classic. It's a gripping, gritty b-movie about a man who is forced to reevaluate his views on violence after his wife and daughter are raped (and killed, in the case of his spouse) by a gang of vicious street punks. The film develops its character, gives him a certain level of depth, and asks for you to sympathize with his actions — no matter how immoral they may be to you. The sequels, on the other hand, each take a step or two away from a functional fictional world you can buy into. They continuously drift further from what could easily pass as reality and into this stylized void of violent b-movie buffoonery — and it all begins with Death Wish II.

Of the many movies that have suffered from the blade of the Editing Room Floor Slasher over the years, Death Wish II is perhaps the one that has never truly benefited from a director's cut or extended version — despite its cult following. Although the first film concluded with Charles Bronson's Paul Kersey touching ground in Chicago, Death Wish II opens with our anti-hero architect living in Los Angeles, where he is busy designing a new home for a local radio station. Being the ladies' man that he is, he's dating one of the station's reporters (Bronson's real-life wife, Jill Ireland), but he also devotes his time to his daughter Carol (Robin Sherwood, in her last unknown performance), who has never fully recovered from the traumatic ordeal she went through in New York City.

And then, it all happens again: a gang of thugs (including a young Laurence Fishburne) invade Kersey's home, raping and murdering his housekeeper and kidnapping his daughter — who later winds up impaled on a fence. Thus, Paul Kersey returns to his old method of roaming the streets at night in order to 86 the scum out there; though, this time, he knows the faces of those responsible and seeks them down personally. As the body count begins to rise, the LAPD calls for assistance from NYPD Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia), who secretly knows of Kersey's rogue law-enforcing citizenry. Anthony Franciosa has a small part as L.A.'s police commissioner in this, the last plausible entry in the series — which benefits from a music score by Jimmy Page.

Had the film been edited in a different (read: not so choppy) manner, with its characters having the chance to develop realistically, Death Wish II might have been a far better film. Alas, it suffers heavily from hasty editing that tends to alienate viewers. Worse still, some of the film's more violent moments (specifically the rape scenes) were trimmed down further still — and are only available via several international SD-DVD releases. A slightly longer edit was issued on VHS in Greece in the '80s, boasting some additional character development (though not too terribly much).

Now, while it would have been really, really nice to give us the unedited "international" version (to say nothing of an all-new extended cut) on Blu-ray, abolishing the R-rated cut once and for all, it doesn't happen here. Nope. Sorry, boys and girls, it's not happening this time 'round, so let's just bow our heads in frustration and move on to Death Wish 3, shall we?

Ah, the sweet, sweet sights and sounds of Death Wish 3: a film that not only abandons the roman numeral altogether because Cannon's research indicated most Americans couldn't figure out how much III was, but completely abandons the concept of believability as well. This time, Paul Kersey returns to New York City in order to answer a plea from a distressed ol' army buddy whose neighborhood has been besieged by a gang of vicious punks led by a psychotic feller named Fraker (Gavan O'Herlihy). His timing, however, isn't so hot: his pal is fatally injured just before Paul arrives — allotting the dying man just enough time to say hello and goodbye.

Erroneously arrested for the crime, Kersey meets a frustrated NYPD cop named Shriker (the great Ed Lauter) who remembers him from the first film (there's always one, right?). Realizing he's both innocent of the crime he was arrested for, but guilty as sin for his past murders, Shriker "hires" Kersey to eliminate the punks in the fallen neighborhood — giving him his blessing to do so, since even the police are powerless in this situation. Wait, what? Free reign to kill bad guys? You bet'cha! And Paul immediately begins to punk-proof the apartment complex he and all the other good-natured people (including Martin Balsam) live in, taking every opportunity to wipe out any who dare cross his past — which eventually results in a district-wide war between Paul and Fraker's army.

To say that Death Wish 3 is even remotely coherent is a mistake. But, of course, it's the film's insanity that has earned it a far more recognized status as a cult film than any of the other films in the franchise. Although the first three films all sport the same director, Michael Winner, the claim that a producer or editor can screw up someone else's hard work is plainly evident here. Somehow, Bronson's dead pal gets a beautiful funeral whilst Chuck is in jail overnight. He also orders an anti-tank missile launcher through the mail. A young black kid randomly appears (to yell "Yeah!"), though he never has any real interaction with anyone else. Inexplicably, Martin Balsam goes from being in a hospital bed in one scene during the explosive finale, to his apartment the next.

Oh, yeah, how can I forget about that finale? Now, I'm guessing there were several square blocks of ghetto in need of destruction or something, as the conclusion of the film finds many buildings being blown sky-high (oddly enough, the movie was mostly filmed in London). But it's that epic moment wherein Charles Bronson and Ed Lauter stroll down the street with pistols in hand, discharging every trigger-happy punk in their sights (as well as hidden) as Jimmy Page's second and final film score funks out in the background that truly makes Death Wish 3 a winner in my book. It's a moment where event the film's cast and crew give up on plausibility; a scene that says "Look, just enjoy it, OK?" and doesn't justify asking your forgiveness.

And then there's Death Wish 4: The Crackdown — a film that by all rights should beg you for your exoneration. This final entry in the Cannon Films trilogy once again has Paul living in Los Angeles (there are more than two cities in the United States, right?), where he has — regardless of the fact that all but one of the women he has ever fallen in love with have wound up murdered — fallen in love with a woman. A woman (Kay Lenz) with a teenage daughter, nevertheless. A daughter who is (surprise!) not raped, but who is instead sold some cocaine by a local dealer. She dies, naturally — causing Paul to once again seek justice.

After executing a punk by tossing him onto the electrified roof of a bumper-car ride, Kersey is contacted by a man claiming to be a wealthy newspaper owner (John P. Ryan) — who seeks to employ America's seemingly-indestructible vigilante in order to wage a war between L.A.'s two most powerful drug-dealing families (yes, that's right: they take the same path that Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone took). Paul blindly proceeds to take out one low element of society after another, only to later discover he has been played the whole time by an imposter: the man who retained his services is actually just another drug lord — which leads to a finale even more absurd than the one in Death Wish 3.

Of course, the way the cheap folks at Cannon present this one makes it far more ridiculous than it already is. Observe, please, the clearly visible ramp used to propel an automobile during what is supposed to be an accident. Witness two — two — appearances of Rondo the Stunt Dummy, falling to his death yet two more times in his illustrious career. Thrill to the sight of other lifeless dummies getting blown up on camera — including one scene where the mannequins are destroyed via superimposed stock footage explosions! Add recycled music from other Cannon titles, the same director as Battle for the Planet of the Apes (J. Lee Thompson), and bit parts by Danny Trejo (as an Italian!), Irwin Keyes, and Mitch Pileggi before they became cult favorites. Tim Russ also stars as a dealer, while George Dickerson and Soon-Tek Oh play cops.

Death Wish II, Death Wish 3, and Death Wish 4: The Crackdown have all been available on SD-DVD for the last ten years or so, but I must say these Blu-ray releases offer us much nicer A/V presentations overall. Granted, the folks at Cannon were never known for making quality movies to begin with, so anyone expecting a five-star treatment in both the audio and video departments will surely be disappointed. That said, the films look better than ever — with DTS-HD Master Audio Mono soundtracks bringing out the best (and worst, particularly in the case of dialogue) the films have to offer. The only extras you'll find here are trailers for all three films, paired with their respective feature.

Now, while the fact that the cut of Death Wish II is not the uncut one we've all been wanting to see (and it's weird, too, since it has been broadcast on television in HD!), anyone who loves these b-grade action classics for what they are will no doubt look to grab these titles for their collection. Hopefully, Paramount and Lionsgate will see fit to release their contributions to the series (Death Wish and Death Wish V: The Face of Death, respectively) to Blu-ray someday soon, so we can upgrade those, too. In the meantime, though, it's nice to know I can enjoy these class-icks.

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