I love unexpectedly coming across the exact movie that I need to see at the exact time I need to see it. And it's even better when it's a movie that's been under my nose for years. That's how I felt when I happened across Death Wish V: The Face of Death last night on AMC. I had watched Fast Five earlier at the theater and, while I didn't hate it, I sure didn't love it - not even as a junky action movie. It sounds foolish to say that it was too ridiculous but yet, it was too ridiculous. To be fair, the filmmakers clearly were not striving for realism. If they were, they wouldn't have Paul Walker's character of former FBI agent Brian O'Conner bust Vin Diesel's jail-bound "Dom" Toretto out of a bus en route to prison by causing a crash that sends the bus flipping over and over about twenty times until it's a smashed, shattered wreck and then cut to a news broadcast informing us that everyone on the bus was unharmed!
Essentially, Fast Five is a cartoon. More than that, it's a summer movie - an entity with even less regard for the laws of physics than a cartoon. For the most part I'm good with that but seeing Diesel and Walker hauling a huge bank vault behind their cars during the film's climax - having ripped the vault out of the bank's walls - and see them be able to reach high speeds with this mega-ton weight dragging behind them (and not have both cars wrapped around street lamps at the first sharp corner they take)...well, the movie just kind of lost me. Not in a way where I felt animosity towards the movie, just in the sense of feeling...eh, this nonsense ain't for me. Other nonsense, yes, just not this nonsense.
Flipping through channels at home later, I came across Death Wish V - a movie that I'd never watched but that turned out to be ideal viewing and a much more suitable action fix for me than Fast Five. How was it that I had ignored this movie for so long? The pinnacle of the Death Wish series, for me, has always been Death Wish 3 (1985) - possibly my favorite '80s action movie. But I never gave either Death Wish IV or V a chance to win me over. Why? Well, when Death Wish IV came out in '87 I was likely too preoccupied with college to catch up with it and just let it slip away. And when Death Wish V came out in '94, it seemed potentially too sad to see the aging Charles Bronson shuffling through a last gasp sequel.
Well, it looks like I'll have to make a point to catch up with Death Wish IV: The Crackdown now because after watching just a few minutes of Death Wish V on AMC last night, I was immediately hooked. Sure, I had missed the first fifteen minutes or so but luckily I was able to get up to speed without much difficulty. Turns out that Paul Kersey is now living under witness protection. When his girlfriend Olivia Regent (Lesley-Anne Down) sees her ex-husband, Irish mobster Tommy O'Shea (Michael Parks), try to muscle in on her fashion business and Freddie "Flakes" (Robert Joy), one of O'Shea's goons, attacks Olivia - permanently scarring her face - O'Shea has created a new enemy in Kersey. When Olivia is later shot and killed by Freddie under O'Shea's orders, it's war.
So, this is standard Death Wish territory. Thankfully for sensitive viewers like myself, by Death Wish 3 they had left the repulsive rape aspect of 1 and 2 behind (I don't know if it reared its head again in 4) so it's more palatable as entertainment to watch Kersey be pushed into action once again.
And, by the way, what a freakin' tragic character this guy is. I mean in Marvel Comics, the vigilante known as The Punisher was born when ex-soldier Frank Castle saw his wife and two children caught in the crossfire of a mob hit in Central Park. That incident alone was enough to spur Castle into waging a never-ending one-man war on crime. But Kersey, man...watching him have any slim semblance of a normal life be annihilated by violence, over and over, it makes you wonder if the makers of the Death Wish sequels could've shown a little mercy and had Kersey just continue to hunt criminals because he knew he had an appetite for it without having the man's life be shattered anew each time.
But...that wasn't the Death Wish formula. Kersey always had to have his hand forced and once O'Shea does that in V, it's on. Directed by Allan A. Goldstein, Death Wish V is not an example of stylish action fare. It's by the numbers all the way as Kersey methodically makes his way through O'Shea's men (one kill, as Kersey poisons a goon in an Italian restaurant, leads to the rhyming newspaper headline "Chicki Paconi Killed By Canoli"), saving O'Shea for last. But after sitting through the bluster of Fast Five, Death Wish V hit me just right. It's an unremarkable movie, sure, but it was comforting to see Bronson - a guy who was effortlessly macho without having to be muscle-bound - inhabit that familiar role of a stone cold avenger with ease.
And the supporting cast is great, too. You've got Joy (Atlantic City, Amityville 3-D) and Parks (Twin Peaks, From Dusk Till Dawn) who both make for interesting, quirky villains (Parks, in particular, seems to be improvising his part). In addition, there's Kenneth Welsh (Twin Peaks, Survival of the Dead) as a cop sympathetic to Kersey and couple of familiar faces that were once common on the big screen in the '90s - Saul Rubinek (True Romance) and Miguel Sandoval (Jurassic Park) - but are most known for their TV work now.
Death Wish V strains credulity at times but only in the casually absurd way that modern action films typically do (for instance, I was unaware that open pools of acid were found in clothes manufacturing shops). While I could gripe that it takes Kersey a little too long to get his rampage on, at the same time I appreciated the leisurely, almost laconic, pace of Death Wish V. As a movie, it's not overblown or bombastic; it's not worried about losing the interest of the audience. Instead, it's a movie that mostly relies on its array of interesting faces to hold the audience's attention. That, and the promise that every despicable character will get theirs in the end.
A respectable farewell to the character of Paul Kersey and to Bronson as a movie star (his only remaining work before his death in 2003 was for the trio of late '90s made-for-TV movies, A Family of Cops), Death Wish V is the kind of B-level action movie that still had a good chance to hit theaters in the mid-'90s but not so much after that.
Having finally watched it, I'm bummed that I never gave Death Wish V a chance on the big screen but truthfully, even if I had I doubt if I would have appreciated it quite as much as I did seeing it for the first time last night. In 1994 I surely would have balked or rolled my eyes impatiently at the sight of Kersey using a remote control soccer ball to slay a target but now it seems like the right kind of fun at the right time.