A parking garage late at night. So late that hardly any cars remain parked in it. One car belongs to an attractive young business woman, who soon comes walking out into the garage and gets inside her vehicle. It doesn’t start. As the woman repeatedly tries to get the engine to turn over, she is frightened to see men with stockings over their heads begin to appear in the garage one by one. When there are three men, they attack, busting out the car’s windows, dragging the woman out of it, holding her down on the ground, brutalizing her, ripping her clothes… The attack would get much worse if it wasn’t for the arrival of Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson reprising the role of the vigilante hero from the previous three films) in the garage.
Introducing himself as “Death” and pulling out a gun, Kersey blows the criminals away in the same way they showed up. One by one. Ignoring pleas for mercy, Kersey kills all three of them. But when he turns the corpse of the final attacker over, he’s shocked to see his own face staring back at him.
Kersey awakes from the nightmare. Even though he has left his vigilante days behind him, continuing to work as an architect in Los Angeles, two years into dating a journalist named Karen (Kay Lenz of The Initiation of Sarah ’78) who’s just a few years off from being young enough to be his granddaughter, caring for his girlfriend’s teenage daughter Erica as if she were his own (great-grand)daughter, he’s clearly a man haunted by his past deeds, no matter how right they seemed to be at the time.
Regardless of how he feels about his past now, he’ll be back to his old tricks soon enough.
Film fans may recognize Dana Barron, who played Griswold daughter Audrey in the first National Lampoon’s Vacation movie, in the role of Erica, but they shouldn’t expect to see very much of her in Death Wish 4, because promising young Erica is dead of a cocaine overdose within the first 15 minutes.
Later that very night, Kersey grabs a gun and hits the street. He witnesses Erica’s boyfriend confront her drug dealer, who kills the teen when he threatens to report him to the police. Kersey then kills the dealer. A momentary lapse back into vigilantism.
Or, it would have been if a note reading “I know who you are” wasn’t left at his home soon after. The note was sent by wealthy newspaper owner Nathan White (John P. Ryan), who has Kersey brought to his mansion in a limo. There, White tells Kersey the story of his daughter Lisa, who died of a cocaine overdose three months before. White wants revenge. He applauds what Kersey did to the dealer who got Erica killed, but the problem in Los Angeles doesn’t end with a lowly pusher. White has put a great deal of money into collecting information on the city’s major drug dealers, and now, with Kersey’s help, he plans to wipe them out.
Kersey takes some time to think about it. After Erica’s funeral, he and Karen both set out to strike back against the L.A. drug scene in their own ways. While Karen embarks on writing an exposé, Kersey goes to war. Bankrolled and supplied with weapons by White, he begins tearing apart the city’s two major drug running organizations, the Zacharias gang and the Romero gang.
Adding more and more scumbags to his already lengthy body count in scene after scene, Kersey takes a different approach to his vigilantism this time around. He’s not just roaming the sidewalk with a gun in his pocket looking for street punks now, in this sequel he basically operates like a hired hitman, infiltrating places and picking off his targets, targets who are making good money off of their criminal pursuits, wearing suits and living well. He’s come a long way from beating a mugger with a sock full of quarters.
As a series based around death scenes goes on, said death scenes will almost always get flashier and more spectacular as the movies continue. That’s how it tends to go with slasher franchises, and the same can be said for Death Wish. Kersey just shot people in the first movie. In the second, there was a bit more variety. In the third, he got his hands on a machine gun and a rocket launcher. In this installment, bad guys aren’t only shot down, they also get blasted with a grenade launcher, dropped out of a high rise, blown up with a time bomb hidden in a wine bottle, etc.
Among the bad guys in The Crackdown are the familiar faces of Danny Trejo, Shocker himself Mitch Pileggi, and Tom Everett. Everett is most well known to me for his role in Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, so it’s a fun coincidence that his character in Death Wish 4 operates out of a room in the back of a video store and to get to this room Kersey has to pass by a promotional standee for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. For a few seconds, Charles Bronson shares the screen with a cardboard Leatherface.
Texas Chainsaw 2 was from the same studio as Death Wish parts 2 through 4, Cannon Films. Producer Dino De Laurentiis apparently hadn’t seen the franchise potential in Death Wish after the success of the 1974 original, but Cannon certainly did, getting their hands on the rights and making sure to churn out sequels throughout the ’80s. The only thing that stopped them from continuing was the demise of the company.
For the fourth film, Cannon commissioned a screenplay from writer Gail Morgan Hickman, who had previously co-written the story for the Dirty Harry sequel The Enforcer, pitched multiple rejected ideas for Death Wish 3, and written the 1986 Charles Bronson/Cannon film Murphy’s Law. While the first three entries in the series had been directed by Michael Winner, who also worked with Bronson on The Mechanic, Chato’s Land, and The Stone Killer, Bronson had been quite unhappy with how Death Wish 3 turned out, so that film marked the end of their working relationship. Another director who had frequently collaborated with Bronson was brought on to helm the latest sequel – J. Lee Thompson, who had directed the star in St. Ives, The White Buffalo, Cabo Blanco, 10 to Midnight, The Evil That Men Do, and Murphy’s Law. Following Death Wish 4, they would work together again on Messenger of Death and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects.
Thompson did a fantastic job stepping into the franchise and handling the fast paced, action packed sequel. He had a great story to work with, in fact I find Death Wish 4 to be the best sequel of the bunch, and while the original film is a true gritty classic, this one comes out on top for me in the entertainment department.
Most of the film’s running time consists of Kersey knocking off criminals and stirring up bad blood between the rival drug gangs, but it isn’t a simple, straightforward kill fest the entire way. Twists and turns are thrown in there along the way, there are double crosses, corruption, and hidden agendas. Kersey gets betrayed, he suffers devastating loss (as usual), but he always gets the job done, and I have a great time watching him do it in The Crackdown.