Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Face of Death

As the famous adage goes “all good things must come to their end”, and for the Death Wish series finality came with not a bang, but a whimper as Death Wish V: The Face of Death (directed by Allan A. Goldstein), snuck into theatres seven years after part IV on January 14th, 1994. Opening on a paltry 248 screens (part IV opened on 1,030 screens in 1987) it earned just about half a million dollars in its first weekend on way to a cume of $1.7 million (again for comparison sake, part IV garnered $2.4 in its first weekend alone) before a speedy video release. DWV was produced by 21st Century Films, Menahem Golan's new production company at the time, his prior studio, Cannon, owed it’s success in the 80's to many a Bronson starring vehicle, but his new company title proved to be decidedly non-prophetic as it would be defunct by 1996.

I had two major fears before the film began. The first was that Charles Bronson, who was in his seventies, would be a shell of his former self and be sadly paraded for one last go round as Paul Kersey against everybody’s better judgment. The second fear struck during the opening credits, a bland basic black screen with tense almost operatic, albeit in a second rate sort of way, theme that lead me to believe what would follow would be too self serious and when these films are humorless they often prove tortuous. Luckily, both of my fears were unfounded. Charles Bronson is a little grayer and his skin a little more wrinkled, but he wore it well and honestly he doesn’t look much different then his last Death Wish go round, he had the Clint Eastwood looking more rugged and interesting as he aged thing going on. As for the latter fear, Goldstein thankfully knows exactly what type of film he’s making and though it has that 90’s straight to video erotic thriller vibe and aesthetic, which is something you may be well versed in if as a teenager you, like me, uh, rented, a lot of straight to video erotic thrillers for whatever reason, it actually keeps with the lighter tone the series developed beginning with part III.

Part V begins with Paul Kersey, who is under witness protection under the completely disguising new alias of Paul Stewart and residing back in New York City (here played by Toronto with a few establishing shots of a pre-Giulani Times Square) the location of parts I and III. He's dating a divorced fashion designer whose ex-husband happens to be a demented crime boss played by Michael Parks (Sheriff McGraw from Kill Bill and both movies in Grindhouse) who wants custody of their daughter. Well, you know where this is headed. Literally before she can respond to his marriage proposal, the fiancee-to-be has her face disfigured by one of Park's cross-dressing goons! And of course, after Kersey for once decides to let the police handle it, she is murdered in a home invasion. Kersey decides to go after each hood one by one to get his vengenance and custody of the daughter that he probably has no legal right to. I can't help but find Kersey somewhat culpable in this whole thing, you think he would learn after having his loved ones slaughtered by thugs four times prior, but no, he keeps on falling in love. He's like a person with a venereal disease who continues to have unprotected sex. You need to tell women you date about your past, be open, be honest, let them know that there's a 97% chance that if they date you , it's likely they will be murdered.

Although his performance feels a little reined in, Michael Parks is the best adversary in a Death Wish since Fraker, he of the reverse Mohawk, in part III. He is an egomaniac and often speaks in an incomprehensible mumble, a whirling dervish of evil with no shades of grey. It's a fun performance even though it seems that Goldstein stopped from letting Parks go too over the top, which is a shame. His compatriot gang of thugs are played for laughs, they include the aforementioned sometime drag wearing guy who has a quirky dandruff obsession and two bumbling Italian goombah brothers. Similar to part IV, the villains are represented as being spoiled and upper class, continuing a nice reversal from the first two film's underlining distrust and disgust at the poor and making financial disarray analogous to villainy. Again, like in Part IV, Kersey employs elaborate Home Alone style methods of disposing of his archenemies. Here that includes an explosive remote controlled soccer ball (stop and think about that for a moment, why would you need a remote controlled soccer ball, it's round and self mobile, it's designed to move on its own with a simple kick or toss?), a pool of acid located in the middle of a sweatshop (I guess they get away with this sort of thing in Canada) and a poisoned Canoli, which causes the villain to choke to death in front of his mother, which is pretty harsh. Not cool, Kersey, at least wait until she went out shopping.

The film ends with Kersey telling the police that he'll be around if they need him before walking into the sunset as the frame freezes. It's a nice little good-bye for Bronson, ending the series on a visual callback to a classic Western trope (a genre that Bronson thrived in), it would also be his last moment ever to be seen theatrically, although he performed in a trilogy of made for TV police dramas called A Family of Cops afterwards. Death Wish V is by no conceivable notion a "good" film, but for the Death Wish series it's on par with all the rest and thankfully a little less rank politically. Speaking of which, one interesting note about the series is that all four prior films, all financially successful, were released when a Republican was in the White House, and part V, which made no impact at cinemas, came within Bill Clinton's first term. Coincidence? Or is our nation more susceptible to middle class vengeance fantasies with a swaggering GOP Commander in Chief? It's something that Sylvester Stallone may want to consider if he ever gets his planned Death Wish reboot off the ground.

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