Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown

Price: $2.50 (Part of a 3-pack of DW2,3, and 4 I bought for $7.50 at Wal-Mart)
Year: 1987
Length: 99 minutes
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Charles Bronson, John P. Ryan, Kay Lenz, Soon Tek-Oh, Danny Trejo, Tuvok

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown opens with a sequence that is at once entirely familiar and typical of the franchise and also announces, in its own weird way, that this ain't your daddy's Death Wish. It starts in the location that is perhaps the most iconic trope of histrionic urban dread: the abandoned parking garage. Placed into this spooky cauldron is a blond professional woman in her 30s, who as a woman alone in a Death Wish film, seems to preternaturally sense her own imminent rape attempt even before any spooky clues start popping up. She walks quickly and suspiciously to her car, breathing a heavy sigh of relief once inside its "safe" confines. However, she turns the key and the car won't start, OF FUCKING COURSE! Before she can even begin to lament the fact that there are no other cars around to give her a jump or call AAA or whatever, she notices a dude standing across the lot from her with a panty on his head. So she tries the key again. No response. When she looks again, there is a second dude with a panty on his head. Tries the key again. Now a third dude with a panty on his head. Still the same distance. Tries the key again. Looks up and poosh they've all gone, but panic has set in now and she keeps trying that damn key but still nothing but grinding. Then whippow, the windows of her car are all smashed in and the panty faces are a grabbing and a groping and we all know how this is going to end, with her being raped and we'll learn that it was like Chucky Bronson's second cousin and there will be revenge and hundreds of bodies will pile up. But wait, in the corner of the lot, a shadowy figure emerges with a gun, he resembles an architect, an architect of MAYHEM. Why, it's good old Paul Kersey as played memorably by Charles Bronson in the previous three Death Wish movies. He promptly kills all the panty head dudes BEFORE they can rape the anonymous 80's woman who plays absolutely no other role in the rest of the movie. And that's it, no more rape or attempted rape for the rest of the movie. That's the big twist I was talking about. It may not seem like that big of a twist. I mean, there was still an attempted rape, and it was still the very first images of the movie; heck, they even rip her shirt off for some uncomfortable nudity right off the top as well. Plus, they beat the living shit out of her before Kersey shows up, so the violence against women quotient can be reached as well. But if you've seen any of the previous 3 movies, you know that this series is known for exactly 2 things: long drawn out graphic rape scenes and the completely over the top vengeance they inspire in one man killing machine, Paul Kersey. By eliminating the protracted rape sequence aspect of these films, we are given a gift by the filmmakers to enjoy this schlocky revenge fest for the stupid pleasure it can provide without having to be bummed out by all the rape that somehow is supposed to justify all the gratuitous killings. Oh here's, the opening scene on youtube anyway.

Now that the "rape" is out of the way, what can it be that will inspire Kersey's heart strings to launch into a concerto of explosions and bullets, why those goddamn drugs these kids are doing these days, of course. Before continuing, it is worth noting that this is the first Death Wish movie that wasn't directed by Michael "named on opposite day" Winner; although it still shares the same Golan-Globus Cannon Films mark of quality that defined the previous 2 sequels. Instead, old smelly warhorse J. Lee Thompson was brought in to whore it up for the Cannon suits as he had been doing for much of the decade. While Thompson was directing classics like GUNS OF NAVARONE (for which he was nominated for a fucking Oscar) and CAPE FEAR in the 60's, he was pretty much limited to directing over violent quasi fascist Charles Bronson films from the mid 70's onward. Death Wish 4 was the 7th of 9 movies that he would direct Charles Bronson in from 1976 to 1989 (they are in order: St. IVES, THE WHITE BUFFALO, CABOBLANCO, 10 to MIDNIGHT, The EVIL THAT MEN DO, MURPHY'S LAW, DEATH WISH 4, MESSENGER OF DEATH, and KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS). It should be noted that Charles Bronson is depicted holding a gun on the poster for every single one of these colorfully named films, except for St. IVES, where a woman behind him is holding a gun over his shoulder, which is close enough since he could grab the gun at any moment and basically be ready to kill. Of these films, the only other ones I've seen are MURPHY'S LAW, which notable mostly for its catchphrase: "The only law I know is Jack Murphy's law. It's very simple. Don't FUCK with Jack Murphy" and the fact that it presents the rare female serial killer antagonist, which is progressive in a profoundly regressive way I suppose; and 10 TO MIDNIGHT, which is defined by having a sex criminal murderer who murders women while he is completely nude, which I don't think any other movie has ever done because it is a fucking terrible idea. So yeah, they musta been fucking buddies (not fuck buddies . . . I think) or something since they worked together so much, but this is the only DEATH WISH movie they made together and, since these films form the bulk of Charles Bronson's claim to 80s filmic immortality, this pairing is very, very special in a way, but also not special at all since they made 8 other movies together that might as well have been DEATH WISH movies for all the killing and the violence and the ladies and the frauleayven chillllld.

So the basic plot of this movie after the completely unconnected opening scene that honestly could have been tacked on at the last moment by the fuming coke splattered face of Menachem Golan himself, "What do you mean there's no rape?? How will they know it's a DEATH WISH movie? Throw in some ALMOST rape so no one's disappointed! After all, they come for the rape and they stay for the violence!" ANYWAY, after that scene, we meet homicidal sociopath Paul Kersey at his new job at an architectural firm in Los Angeles (another change from the first 3, which all take place in NYC). He's just sitting around flipping through papers and pretending to do work when a young girl approaches him with a bunch of papers. He is warm towards her, but asks if she's okay because she's all sniffles mcnosealot in front of him and she's chirpily like YEAH I'M SUPER all Harrison Ford in Frantic like. It seems pretty obvious this girl is going to die now because this guy is like the Midas Bro of Doom in that whomever he loves dies. It turns out she's his way younger girlfriend's daughter. In the next scene, we learn where her sniffing comes from as she goes off with her boyfriend to the old video arcade to buy some cocaine after arousing Kersey's suspicion by blowing a J with her BF in the driveway. "I worry about her" he says, "I love her like my own daughter." Now we really know she's going to die since everyone Paul Kersey ever grows attached to dies in a wildly violent fashion. However, once again, our expectations are tweaked by the prevalence of drugs over rape in the plot. As it turns out when she's at the arcade buying some yayo from Tuvok with her BF, another dealer dude pulls her aside and is like "I GOT A SPECIAL PRESENT JUST FOR YOU, IT's THAT GOOD SHIT, Don't share it with your boyfriend it's ALL FOR YOU!" So yeah, the scene ends and we are immediately rushed towards her being an overdose victim at the morgue. Guess she listened to her dealer and didn't share! Serves her right for being shellfish. Paul cries, his much younger girlfriend cries, and the vengeance plot is seemingly given permission to take off in the filmmaker's eyes. To drive the point home, we are given a tour of the rest of the dead bodies in the morgue, all children, all drug related! OR R DEY? You see, the coroner points to one kid who's like 15 and has a hole in his head, and is like "he was shot after robbing a convenience store to get money to buy drugs" and for another body, a 13 year old girl, "she was a prostitute to get money to buy drugs and her throat was slashed by one of the clients."

Now here's where the turgid and entertainingly retarded morality of the film needs to be questioned. First of all, how can you hold drug dealers responsible for these convoluted cause and effect style deaths. How do they know the kid was robbing the store to get drug money? Shouldn't the guy who shot the 15 year old in the head be responsible for the kid's death, since he you know directly killed the fucking kid. Also, ditto for the girl whose throat was cut. The dude who slashed her throat killed her. Not drugs. It makes no fucking sense why he would jump to the conclusion that the drug dealers are the ones who need to die in the case of these deaths. I guess they made these kids have violent deaths since the correct and more universally accepted point of view on overdose deaths is to blame the person who did the drugs of their own volition for their own deaths. The fact that the plot clearly points out that this girl did all the drugs by herself without her BF makes her culpability in her own death almost absolute to any non-Paul Kersey person. Hell, she even kept it all for herself. Maybe if she'd be more generous and less selfish and shared her super special secret stash, she wouldn't have died in the first place.

This is where I begin to think that this movie may have more up it's sleeve than at first meets the eye (for an eye we in this together son your beef is mines). I honestly think that it could all be a satire of how fucking stupid the war on drugs actually is. First of all, it makes no bones about depicting Paul Kersey as a total fucking psycho. He kills people left and right who maybe have some small connection to the drug trade, but certainly don't necessarily deserve to die for it. For example, later in the film, he raids a fish processing plant that is actually a front for a huge cocaine smuggling and processing factory in the back. It's a huge factory full of working class people. Many of these people don't even work in the back and possibly don't know anything about what goes on back there. But once Kersey gets in there, it's all guns a blazing shoot em all and let Allah sort out the rest. Once he has started out on his killing spree there, the PA loudly announces repeatedly "$1,000 to the man who takes down the killer" and these poor desperate working class people start throwing themselves at him left and right, even though he handily kills them all, just in the sad desperate hope that they might be able to take him out and get $1,000 to like pay for diapers and operations for their sick kids and shit. I mean, I'm not gonna try to take out a murdering machine for $1,000. I don't know anyone who would jump at a man holding a fucking crazy ass machine gun just for the chance to get 1,000 measly dollars as a reward. It just goes to show that these were just people getting by the only way they know how as underpaid lower level cogs in the drug machinery. They were just as exploited and abused by the drug kingpins who truly profited as the so-called victims of drug use. His attack on those workers makes EXACTLY as much sense as it would to blow up the Jack Daniels factory because your daddy drank himself to death. Yet if anyone did that, it would be viewed as a national tragedy, not a cause for celebration.

Which brings me to another (briefish) point, unlike in the other DEATH WISH films, there is very little depicted public approval of Paul Kersey's killing sprees in DEATH WISH 4. The only people who approve of his actions throughout the course of the film are one police officer who keeps claiming he's making their job easier (probably because he's lazy and looks like Ben Gazzara) and a man posing as the father of a dead drug victim who actually turns out to be another drug lord who encourages Kersey because he's helping eliminate his competition. In DEATH WISH 3, we are given numerous shots of common folk congratulating Kersey on cleaning up their streets and, in fact, he gets a whole building of old Jewish people on his side to help him take out those pesky punks in that film's jaw dropping climax. Old people killing punks with guns. It's amazing. But here, Kersey only works by himself, never with any assistance or even public approval. He's already killed hundreds of people over the course of the previous three films and his killing spree in this one seems Bourne more of habit than any warranted wrath or fury. Hell, Bronson never even really expresses any emotion throughout the whole movie apart from his one hilarious line reading of "It's those damn drugs!" Killing for Kersey is just a way of life and one he has no intention of giving up on anytime soon, even if no one he loves got raped this time.

Another point, it is very clear to anyone who has ever seen a Cannon Film or any film from the 80's for that reason, that every single person on the set of every single movie made between the years of say 1982 to 1991 was completely coked out of their fucking minds. There is even a scene in this film (above) where Kersey attacks a film producer who is involved in selling drugs at his office and guns him down. The producer is surrounded by posters for Cannon Films at the time of his death. In fact, they actually shot this scene at the Cannon office complex to allegedly save money, which I don't doubt that it did, but it also sends the pretty clear message that we are seeing a drug dealer character who is basically depicted as also being a producer for the Golan-Globus company. Why would you want to associate your own company with drug dealing, you know apart from the free promotion of your own properties? Because you don't fucking care whether you're associated with dealing drugs cause your company runs on the stuff anyway.

In fact, most of the drug dealers' deaths seem to be more validated by the fact that they are all just a bunch of assholes more than by the fact of what they do for a living (or killing). Poor factory workers scene aside, almost every villain who is taken out in this film is depicted as an abusive, misogynistic, angry, violent pile of shit before being taken out by the Kers Man. So we, as the drug loving audience, can root for their deaths as assholes who deserved to die for being assholes, while others, as the drug hating audience, can root for their deaths as assholes who deserve to die for being assholes and for poisoning our children with those GODDAMN DRUGS.

Another scene early on in the film that I think gives me cokeamamie theory some Creedence (tapez) is when the younger gf of Kersey, who happens to be a newspaper reporter, talks to her editor about how, in light of her daughter's death, she wants to launch an investigation into uncovering how drugs are distributed to our children. He, as the most rational character in the entire film, basically smacks her down with a little bit of something like this: "Everybody does drugs these days, nobody wants to hear about it, it's too mainstream now for you to have any effect on it, plus you're too close to the story to be objective. Nobody is going to want to read what you have to say about it because they already know how to get drugs because they do drugs everyday! Report about something else, anything else, and then I'll talk to you." Maybe we're supposed to view this guy as a callous ass. Someone on the imdb message board said he reminded him of Charles Grodin, who himself has seemed at times like the very living definition of self-important ass. I, however, viewed him as a sole voice of reason in this cracked out bowl of wacky noodles.

Whether any of this satirical or drug war smackdown theories that I'm reading into this film were at all intended by the filmmakers hardly matters at this point. The director and star have both been dead for several years, so all we have left to judge them on is the work they left behind and that is free to interpretation however we, as the audience, see fit. I mean, when I watched TRIUMPH OF THE WILL for an art class in college, we weren't watching the movie because we appreciated or agreed with its message. We were just watching it for the architecture and camera set ups. I honestly find it hard to believe that anyone in this day and age could appreciate anything about that film apart from its technical specs. Its dull as dishwater depiction of Hitler yakking on and on about lord knowz what would probably go over worse at a kkklan rally than a screening of the latest Tyler Perry film. Despite its intent as a celebration of Hitler's glory and ideology, it stands largely today as a boring tired relic of technical innovation. It has taken on a new life as an artifact of a time and place where people thought like that and made movies about it. But viewed through the lens of HIS-STORY!, we can instead view it as one of the best depictions ever of the true banality of evil (yes, I read that book in college as well). It makes being a Nazi look as fun as calculus homework and that's basically what the film has been reduced to itself: homework. I watched it for a class, most people who watch probably do it for classes. It's too boring for any other use. Except maybe cleaning my toilet. Those hard DVD edges really wipe the poop off real good.

I feel like Death Wish 4, regardless of whether it was intended as a secret condemnation of the drug war or as an orgiastic celebration of vigilante justice, stands today in largely a similar light. Removed from the histrionic heights of Nancy Reagan's JUST SAY NO era of paranoid worry worting, it is next to impossible to view the film as anything but a condemnation of the absurd lengths that Charles Bronson goes towards avenging the death of a girl who was entirely responsible for her own death and, therefore, doesn't need any avenging in the first place. Just because it depicts this vigilantism doesn't mean we have to side with it. Sure, there are probably many who do watch the film and think that, yeah, all those drug dealers sure had it coming and boy do they blewed up good. That's fine. But I imagine these people are in the minority, just as there are probably still a minority of very very patient and attentive Hitler Youth wannabes who sit around in their den watching TRIUMPH OF THE WILL and getting all jazzed about being anti-semitic, provided they can stay awake. Once a movie has been released into the world, it is open to the interpretation of every single person who sees it and every single person's interpretation is the right one for them. It's what makes us different from one another and part of what defines us as people.

I'm reminded of the audio commentary track for the movie STARSHIP TROOPERS, one of my favorite films by Paul Verhoeven (who is maybe my favorite director at this point). At the very start of the track, before the credits have even started rolling, Verhoeven starts going into a rant about how false and wrong it was of the many critics who branded his very clear satire of war as being fascist. He argues that while the film does depict fascism, that itself does not make the film or the filmmaker fascist themselves. As anyone with half a brain (which I guess doesn't include about half of the nation's film critics) can attest, the film STARSHIP TROOPERS is indeed a complete and total satirical evisceration and takedown of fascism. By taking on the form of a propaganda film not entirely unlike TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, he is using one of the common tools of fascism to condemn it in an almost exceedingly clever way WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE? The only problem is when people who misinterpret the filmmaker's intention throw insults their way. This was what was so troubling to Verhoeven, who has made at least 4 or 5 of the most misunderstood films of all-time. Critics were calling him a fascist and saying that his film approves of fascism when any close reading of it tells you the exact opposite. It probably tells you more about the people making these accusations than it does about Verhoeven himself or his film. Just as my interpretation of DEATH WISH 4 probably tells you a lot about myself since I have been a life long opponent of the drug war and a firm believer that people are wholly responsible for the damage they do to their own bodies. As a result of this, I viewed it through that mindset and found plentiful evidence for my position throughout the movie because that was what I was looking for.

Maybe one day, you'll look at this movie and see the same things I saw. Or you won't. It doesn't really matter. The whole thing is just an excuse to kill a lot of people in amusing ways, which this film does splendidly. The exploding wine bottle on the table was my favorite. I'll look it up on youtube. BOOM!

There's that. It gives you a real flavor for the actual film itself. If you made it this far in my rambly discourse, I will personally buy you a beer if you're ever in LA. Just drop a comment and we'll iron out the details. I'm almost serious about this. This is by far the longest blog post I've ever done and it just keeps getting longer the more I talk about it. LONG STORY SHORT, this movie is fucking hilarious and fails in every possible way to actually convince us that any of the vengeance depicted in this film is at all warranted. Still, it's fucking hilarious. You should watch it some time. Here's how the movie ends if you need more proof.

The whole movie is on youtube if you act fast. Just search for Death Wish 4: The Crackdown and you can't miss it. Good luck out there. And remember, only take what you can handle and always know your dealer. Especially if you're gonna watch this movie. It's much funnier that way.


Reid said...

Good stuff

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