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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Death Wish' Enters Comic-Book Phase

November 09, 1987|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

With "Death Wish 4: The Crackdown" (citywide), the Charles Bronson vigilante series is verging on self-parody, something which director J. Lee Thompson, shrewd veteran that he is, clearly understands.

Writer Gail Morgan Hickman has created a raft of one-dimensional types within a plot of stunning simple-mindedness, and Thompson has turned it into an efficient, fast-moving, hard-action, good-looking comic-book fantasy, which was the only smart way to go. Of course, the film's violence is bone-crunching and blood-spurting, but thankfully it's dispatched in a swift, cartoon-like way. (You can all but see the film's dialogue in balloons.)

Thompson moves us way beyond the taking-the-law-into-your-own-hands controversy that surrounded the 1974 original "Death Wish." By now Bronson's Paul Kersey is an architect in the same way that Clark Kent is a reporter: His Vigilante has become as much an above-the-law mythological figure as Superman. Indeed, when Kersey, who now has his own large firm in Los Angeles, gets back into action when his girlfriend's teen-age daughter fatally ODs on crack, he doesn't even bother to use a new weapon or a new car. He is so invincible that it doesn't matter that the LAPD can easily identify him when he starts his one-man war against local drug traffickers.

Such invincibility does not make for much suspense but it does provoke laughter, and it's to Thompson's credit that it's friendly rather than derisive. From the start Thompson makes it clear that while the drug epidemic is no laughing matter, this bluntly cynical film itself is not to be taken seriously. Bronson is as strong and largely silent as ever. As welcome as Key Lenz always is, she appears exceedingly briefly as his new, predictably ill-fated love. Most everyone else in the film is a heavy. It's indicative of the film's slightness of characterization that 24th -billed Connie Hair, as an amusingly jaded gangster's fancy lady, makes the strongest impression in the entire cast.

"Death Wish 4" (rated R for the obvious reasons) may be preposterous, but on the level of technique it's a solid textbook example of crisp exploitation picture craftsmanship. Thompson clearly takes pleasure in setting up every scene with maximum economy and impact, and his work is that of a professional without apologies.

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