Death Wish 5: The Face of Death

(1994)

by D. B. Bates, Editor-in-Chief

From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.

By 1988, the Cannon Group’s shady financial dealings led them to the verge of bankruptcy. Partners Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus split up when Pathé Communications (not the storied French studio; yet another shady distributor owned by Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti, who was hellbent on buying the real Pathé) bought the struggling company, more to have access to their back catalog and lucrative MGM distribution deal than to produce new films under the Cannon name. After he failed to buy Pathé, Parretti set his sights on MGM, which he purchased in 1990 and ran into bankruptcy by 1991. (Allegedly, his reign at MGM inspired Get Shorty.) Globus stayed with Pathé, while Golan launched the 21st Century Film Corporation. One could argue that Death Wish 5: The Face of Death does not technically fall under the Cannon umbrella, but I can’t agree with that. Cannon had Death Wish 5 in development as early as 1988, so the fact that it didn’t get made until 1994 — by a company founded by Golan — means that it’s Cannon to me.

Easily the worst film in the series, and such a disappointing note to end on, Death Wish 5: The Face of Death finds Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) in a New York City that looks conspicuously like Toronto. He’s entered the witness protection program, a believable necessity after taking down well-connected mobsters in The Crackdown, and teaches architecture at an unnamed university. He lives with Olivia Regent (Lesley-Anne Down), a prominent fashion designer. The fashion angle allows the film to both pander to the fashion craze of the early ’90s (seriously, in the early ’90s even I knew far too much about fashion, partly because I had a sister and partly because it had so much mainstream popularity, you couldn’t escape it) and allow for the sleaziest sort of gratuitous nudity. Unnecessary glamor shots of breasts, butts, torsos, legs (but, conspicuously, no faces) flood the first half hour of Death Wish 5 like an erotic sensory assault.

It’s a seemingly perfect life for Paul. He lives in a nice-looking house (I like to imagine he designed it himself), has an intelligent and attractive girlfriend, and gets to care for an adorable moppet (Erica Lancaster). It’s almost like he rebuilt the life destroyed in the first Death Wish film.

But all is not right in the garment district. Olivia’s ex-husband, Tommy O’Shea (Michael Parks), is a comically vindictive mobster with a stranglehold over the entire New York fashion infrastructure. He uses the legitimate businesses to launder money, but he’s hit hard times. People aren’t buying enough clothes to justify the enormous sums of money flowing out of the businesses. Tommy solves the problem by tossing clothes into a vat of acid, which I have to imagine is somehow symbolic of Cannon’s late-’80s business model.

Upon finding out about Tommy, Paul calls his old friend, district attorney Tony Hoyle (Saul Rubinek), who wants Olivia to testify. She agrees on the same night Paul proposes marriage, so it’s no surprise that she’ll end up dead before the movie’s over. First, “Flakes” (Robert Joy), a dandruff-plagued assassin, puts on a female disguise so he can catch Olivia in the bathroom and bash her face into a mirror repeatedly, permanently disfiguring her. It’s soon revealed that Tommy has dual motives for wanting Olivia dead — in addition to preventing her from testifying, he wants his daughter back.

If you think Paul’s going to give her up without a fight, you haven’t read any of my previous Death Wish reviews.

Death Wish 5 keeps the stakes frustratingly low and, with the exception of “Flakes,” entirely free of the imagination that made the other films so entertaining. Paul finds himself up against a handful of ineffectual, nonthreatening goons, all of whom he dispatches with dismaying apathy. In all of the previous films, Bronson (sometimes single-handedly) made the films work by never forgetting Paul is as wounded and vulnerable as he is angry and intelligent. Here, Bronson’s apparent disinterest in the film (allegedly, he demanded a higher salary than usual in the hopes that they wouldn’t make the film; his gamble paid off financially but not creatively) carries over to Paul, which is a huge detriment.

The film also takes a big gamble on the misguided notion that Michael Parks is a frightening heavy. Parks, whose career has been reinvigorated thanks to an association with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, has been decent enough in other films but is simply terrible here. Not for a second does he sell the idea that Tommy O’Shea is either smart enough or ruthless enough to run a successful organized crime syndicate. Believing in that one simple fact is the key to making the story work.

In fact, the only two actors who seem interested in giving good performances are Saul Rubinek and Miguel Sandoval. As a crooked cop, Sandoval plays the character with an eerie mixture of kindness and violence that makes him much more intimidating than anyone else on Tommy O’Shea’s payroll. As the district attorney, Rubinek’s “special appearance” has the dubious honor of representing the failed justice system. There’s a moment, late in the film, when he realizes the corruption and ineffectiveness endemic in the system that he has a hand in running. By playing it as if his entire world has shattered around him, Rubinek single-handedly creates the only part of the film that has any resemblance to the off-kilter tone of the previous Death Wish movies. It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and silly, which is exactly what the moment should be.

Overall, though, the film is terrible: Exploitation at its worst, without the charming strangeness and over-the-top violence of the other films. It’s an incredibly depressing note to end on, so much so that I wish Golan had continued with his plans to make Death Wish 6: The New Vigilante, in order to redeem the series. However, it’s just as easy to pretend Death Wish 5 doesn’t exist, in the same way Bronson wanted to pretend the misunderstood masterpiece Death Wish 3 didn’t exist.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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