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As I embark on my review of the first three (of four) Death Wish sequels I am suddenly struck by the fact that I’ve never actually seen these movies. I’ve spent so much of my life watching ‘70s and ‘80s vigilante films, many of which were directly inspired by Michael Winner’s original film (based on the original novel by Brian Garfield, who was a student of my grandfather at the University of Arizona), but I never actually sat down with the official Death Wish follow-ups (save the last 30 minutes of Death Wish II, which I happened to see on MGM HD). I find I actually know more about the production history of these films than I do about the films themselves and that’s just plain weird. So here I go, on a deep dark journey onto the mean streets with a rapidly aging Chuck Bronson.

Death Wish II, Death Wish 3, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown

Death Wish II

The most notorious of the sequels, Death Wish II, takes place something like four years after the original film. Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) and his now catatonic daughter Carol (Robin Sherwood) have moved to LA, where he continues his work as an architect. Tragedy strikes when a gang of hoodlums rape and kill Paul’s housekeeper, Rosario (Silvana Gallardo), knock Kersey unconscious, and kidnap Carol, who is later raped (yes, again) before jumping out of a high window and impaling herself on a conveniently placed fence. When Kersey awakens, he goes right back to his old habits in a desperate bid for vengeance.

There’s absolutely nothing distinguished about Death Wish II, but it’s an entertaining enough vigilante thriller that simply and quickly ups the ante on the first film’s most basic elements. There was studio money behind the film, but it’s not a ‘real’ movie; it’s a formulaic splatter movie, complete with a lack of plot, clumsy dialogue, and simplified morals. It’s really no different from the independently produced Death Wish rip-offs and even apes a standard ‘80s slasher movie at times, though, of course, from the point of view of the killer rather than the victims. Ideally, such a belated sequel (released eight years after the original) would invert the overused tropes of the original and perhaps force the Paul Kersey character to question his actions or at least be confronted with some negative fallout, but Winner opts for generally more of the same. I guess they can’t all be Magnum Force. There’s a bit of a subplot involving faux-realistic discussion of the state of crime and questioning the justness of the death penalty, but this is merely window dressing, elevated only by the acting abilities of Vincent Gardenia, J.D. Cannon and Anthony Franciosa. What does works in its favour is the fact that Winner is a solid, stylish director. His imagery recalls the quickly dying rawness of the ‘70s American cinema that launched his career. Winner also clearly isn’t afraid of the brand of mainstream-unfriendly brutality that defined non-studio rape/revenge movies that followed the release of the first Death Wish. This Blu-ray features the sizably re-edited R-rated cut, which deletes most of the film’s two ultra-harsh first act rape scenes (and does so rather awkwardly). In their uncut form these scenes don’t quite match the jaw-dropping, turn-away-from-the-screen ugliness of Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave, but certainly give Abel Ferrara’s vastly superior Ms. 45 and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left a run for their money in the tasteless department. Fortunately, none of Bronson’s bloody massacring appears to have been trimmed.

Not surprisingly, Death Wish II looks old and grainy and, given Winner’s stylistic goals, we wouldn’t have it any other way. MGM would’ve been crazy to slather this particular film with DNR. Presented in the original 1.85:1 theatrical framing (it appears that the uncut DVDs are mostly full-frame), this release is just about as close to the original theatrical release as fans can expect from the material. Detail levels and basic clarity are very impressive without sacrificing that gorgeous film grain. There are some minor haloes along the higher contrast edges and a few flecks of dirt here and there, but digital artefacts don’t constitute aren’t a realistic problem (unlike the MGM HD airing I caught part of a few months back). Colours are largely naturalistic and soft, but there are some more vibrant highlights peppered throughout and none feature any major bleeding. Fox doesn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for this DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono soundtrack and that’s A-okay. The track is mostly quiet, depending on dialogue and only the most necessary foley work. Only a few pieces of Jimmy Page’s ridiculous rockin’ score are squished and flattened by sound and vocal effects, and these are the times I wanted stereo enhancement. Actually, aural muddiness is a problem throughout the track, but the lack of obvious digital compression seems to point toward issues in the original material. Extras include a trailer and that new Blu-ray smell.

Death Wish II, Death Wish 3, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown

Death Wish 3

Likely the most beloved of the sequels, Death Wish 3 sees Kersey returning to the Big Apple to visit a friend, who is unceremoniously killed by gang members. Kersey is initially arrested for the crime, which leads him to be ‘hired’ by chief Richard Shriker (Ed Lauter) to clean up the dirty streets. For his last shot at the Death Wish franchise director Michael Winner pulled out all the stops, aiming for something far more cartoonish and comparatively more light-hearted than the first two films. The palette is more colourful, the camera work is more dynamic, and everything ridiculous about the franchise is properly embraced. On many levels this feels more like a Walter Hill film than a Michael Winner film, right down to the colourfully clad and flamboyant gang members. Any pretense of realism is dropped entirely in favour of comic book characterizations and the approach works like gangbusters. Even Bronson’s advancing age and goofy, smiley performance fits the film’s satirical tone. Plot is almost entirely beside the point this time around as the script dives head first into familiar western and vigilante tropes, but there is a solid hook that keeps Death Wish 3 from being yet another rehash of the first film’s formula. The ‘Kersey as a weapon’ gimmick, despite its over-simplicity, is at least a concept. There are still some awkward discussions of criminal morality via Kersey’s latest love interest, but the film’s basic pattern of escalating mayhem outweighs these issues. Even when it doesn’t mean to be amusing, Death Wish 3 excels in terms of unintentional comedy (re: anytime Winner tries to get dramatic). The violence, for the most part, follows tonal suit and isn’t nearly as brutal as the violence in the second film. There’s still plenty of blood, but the one rape scene plays almost entirely off-screen, and scenes of Bronson prepping booby traps and offing creeps with a ridiculously giant gun elicits plenty of hearty laughs. The one million bullet climax is easily the most fun thing that happens in the entire Death Wish series (assuming the fifth film is as bad as I’ve heard).

This Blu-ray generally looks and sounds the same as the previous one. There is noticeably more dirt and print damage on this 1.85:1, 1080p transfer, and at times that glorious grain can turn a bit too thick, but, again, these artefacts mostly feel like a natural part of the grindhouse product. On the whole this is a softer movie, featuring less in the way hard edges and contrast, but detail levels don’t suffer very much, especially not the more deep-set ones. This time Winner opts for a whole lot more colour in his palette and HD video helps keep these more eclectic hues vibrant and sharply separated. The softer quality does, however, lead to a bit of bleeding and some of the white and grey elements exhibit green or red noise. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono soundtrack is a bit crisper than the one on Death Wish II, but still features some issues with mono mushiness. Dialogue is plenty clear without high-end distortion and there’s a hair more ambient noise than the previous entry. Jimmy Page’s music is so different compared to the second film that it’s honestly hard to believe the two scores were composed by the same man. The more poppy qualities of the music help keep the track a bit sharper than the muddied rock score and tend to fit the film’s ridiculously ‘80s qualities as well. The extras include a trailer and a clicking sound when you open and close the box.

Death Wish II, Death Wish 3, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown

Somehow, Paul Kersey has found a new family unit, despite being a tortured, elderly mass-murderer. Soon enough, though, his pseudo-stepdaughter overdoses on crack cocaine and Kersey is back on the street, shootin’ holes in drug-pushers and gangland distributors. When Michael Winner finally escaped the series, the producers of Death Wish 4: The Crackdown employed J. Lee Thompson, who had collaborated with Bronson on several films including St. Ives and The Evil That Men Do, and had directed genuine classics, like The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear. Thompson’s direction is consistently sharp and classy, not to mention better than Winner’s on average (Winner still wins when it comes to explosive mayhem), but he doesn’t have much to work with script-wise. The opening sequence is a good example of the upgrade in direction. A nearly brilliant play on slasher and horror movie conventions, this sequence starts as a nameless victim desperately tries to start her conveniently broken car. Every time she looks down at the ignition another masked man appears before her, arms crossed. Then, just like Michael Myers, all three are gone, only to leap into view at the most startling moment possible. As the bad guys tear off her clothes, they stop to look ahead, where a black trench coat-clad Kersey stands, gun drawn, announcing that he is ‘death’, before gunning the creeps down. Then he flips the final would-be rapist over to reveal…his own face. Turns out it was a nightmare. Too bad, because this kind of hyper-stylized, pseudo-supernatural filmmaking is exactly what the bowl-circling series needed following the audacity of the third film. Soon enough, though, we’re back to an ultra-serious Death Wish movie with nothing but a mostly boring mob theme (solid cast of character actors, notwithstanding) to separate it from the other films. I suppose that if Death Wish 3 is the High Noon of the franchise, The Crackdown is the Yojimbo/ Fistful of Dollars, for whatever that’s worth.

Once again, this Blu-ray generally follows the lead set by the other two films in this review. The Crackdown is the newest of the three films, which makes it a slight video upgrade and a sizable audio upgrade. The image quality is hampered a bit by Thompson’s use of natural lighting and a relatively dull colour palette, but, overall, details are plenty sharp, especially in close-up (sharpest of the three films), and the print is quite clean, despite obvious film grain (the finest of the three films). The only noticeably print damage artefacts crop up between the obvious reel changes. On occasion the wacky wardrobe standards of the late ‘80s rear their head and the bland flat palette is spiked with some kind of fluorescent hue that is sharply contrasted against the flatter colours. There’s some slight bleeding and minor edge-enhancement, but nothing particularly unexpected. The sound is again presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0, but this time, the mono format doesn’t really hinder the sound quality in terms of muddiness or flatness. There are shortcomings in regards to the lack of stereo enhancement, but there is still a modest degree of aural depth and element separation. The musical score, this time composed by John Bisharat, Paul McCallum and Valentine McCallum, is the most generic of the three scores, but is also the cleanest and most well-balanced in the collection. The extras include a trailer and a sense of accomplishment.