You’d think by now that bad guys would leave Paul Kersey’s family alone. Wile E. Coyote has a better life expectancy than Kersey’s loved ones, going back to 1974’s DEATH WISH. Three sequels later, Kersey—still played by the increasingly flinty Charles Bronson—is back in business in Los Angeles, running a successful architectural firm and two years into a relationship with Karen Sheldon (Kay Lenz), a journalist who writes about battered women.
You know Kersey though. When he doesn’t kill any scumbags for awhile, he starts to get itchy, so perhaps he subconsciously regards it as a godsend when Karen’s teenage daughter dies from a cocaine overdose. After (easily) tracking down the dealer who sold her the coke and putting a bullet into his chest, Kersey is summoned to the stately home of wealthy Nathan White (John P. Ryan), who knows of Kersey’s past and offers him a chance to clean up L.A.’s streets for good.
White will supply money, weapons (including an exploding wine bottle!), and information, and Kersey will murder the leaders and top gunmen of the city’s two leading drug suppliers. Of course, if this arrangement sounds too good to be true, it probably is, but at least it leads to several car explosions, squibbed chests, fights, chases, and a lengthy shootout inside an improbably crowded roller rink.
Bronson must have been comfortable during this time, working almost exclusively for Cannon and director J. Lee Thompson (for whom he acted nine times). “Comfortable” doesn’t mean “challenging” though. Bronson is typically solid here and still believable at age 65 doing action scenes, but he does little to differentiate Kersey from, say, the cops he played in MURPHY’S LAW and 10 TO MIDNIGHT.
Lenz (RICH MAN, POOR MAN) is criminally underused, virtually vanishing long enough during the middle to make you forget she’s even in the movie, while Ryan (IT’S ALIVE) shamelessly overacts as usual. Thompson and writer Gail Morgan Hickman (NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET) make some attempt at ambition, getting into Kersey’s dreams and throwing slight symbolism into the finale, but that’s not really what DW4 is all about. It’s about the beatings and the shootings, and, truth be told, it’s done pretty well.
It isn’t as good as the original DEATH WISH, which actually had something worthwhile to say, but it’s better than the dismal DW2 and probably even DW3, which is the funniest film in Bronson’s canon.