The success of DEATH WISH launched a million sleazy urban vigilante revenge pictures, but it took 44 years – one for each millimeter in a Magnum – for us to get one starring an uncanny Charles Bronson lookalike. In the tradition of THE MAN WITH HUMPHREY BOGART’S FACE, BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA, THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE, the entire genre of Bruceploitation, Dolly the Sheep and Madame Tussaud’s comes DEATH KISS starring Robert Kovacs, a.k.a. Robert Bronzi. He doesn’t have a death wish, he is the kiss of death, you see. They explain that.
I believe this is a sincere tribute and/or a weird novelty, not a cash grab, because it’s not like there’s gonna be big money in tricking somebody into thinking there’s another old Bronson movie they never heard of, or that Bronson is alive and looking the same age as he was in DEATH WISH four decades ago. There’s no explanation, he just appears there with his messy hair and trademark mustache, wearing his Paul Kersey trenchcoat and tie, a mysterious stranger showing up where he’s not supposed to, putting bullets into child traffickers and their clients, or unsolicited cash into the mailbox of a troubled single mother (Eva Hamilton, OUIJA HOUSE) who has no idea who he is.
He lives in a torn up apartment furnished only with a metal folding chair when he’s not barging through doors, hiding around corners, sometimes jumping. He’s pretty nimble – his body looks a little younger than his head to me. But I don’t think it’s makeup.
In real Bronson movies sometimes it’s hard for me to wrap my head around a normal, pretty woman spending time with this man carved out of a knotted tree trunk with a chainsaw. And it seems even odder in a 2018 movie. They don’t fall in love, though. In a depressing moment she opens her shirt, thinking that’s what he’s after, but he’s not.
The weirdest and best thing about DEATH KISS is that there’s no irony or nudging or meta-ness. It’s a straight forward formulaic vigilante movie with all the usual tropes (talk radio host [Daniel Baldwin, VAMPIRES] who supports him, people he watches after for mysterious reasons, half-assed lip service to the notion that maybe there may be some ethical problems with going around fucking blowing people’s heads off but probly it’s the right thing to do in this case). It’s watchable and competently made for this kind of thing at this kind of budget, but nothing more. Truly the one and only unusual thing about it is that instead of starring Eric Roberts or whoever it would’ve been in the normal human world version, it stars this guy:
Turns out Bronzi and writer/director Rene Perez previously did a 2017 western Bronsalike called FROM HELL TO THE WILD WEST. He’s also in something called ESCAPE FROM DEATH BLOCK 13, which I gotta assume is the same deal, since his websight provides no evidence of him ever not looking like Charles Bronson.
The illusion is so convincing that honestly at times I would forget it wasn’t the real Bronson I was looking at. But the spell was spoken any time he had to speak. His voice sounds dubbed, but not by much of a Bronson imitator. Which is funny, because I’m positive it would be way easier to find someone who does a great Bronson voice than someone who looks this much like him. Why not go all the way?
He has some lines that are very Bronson-esque, though. His friend Ana mentions a coyote in the area and later he pulls out a big rifle and all he says is “For your coyote.”
I was surprised to find that the movie is not a throwback. I mean, it is in the sense that there’s a target shooting montage where a man patiently teaches a woman how to shoot. But not in a stylistic sense. There are no ’70s fonts or outfits, and they don’t try to make the digital video look like film stock. It’s clearly the modern world he’s manifested into. Machete don’t text, but Bronzi takes a drug pusher’s phone and responds to a message from his mule at the airport. The retro synth score brings in some hip hop beats, and a child sex trafficker uses “pizza” as a code word, which I think was probly a thing the Pizzagate crazies made up, but either way that’s gotta be where they got it from. And there are a couple scenes with first person shooter style shots with the gun in the foreground, which I don’t remember being a technique ever used in the DEATH WISH series.
I guess one thing that does seem retro is the idea that drug traffickers need to be executed. Ana is an ex-junkie, and his rampage stems back to an incident at a drug house. But did he really need to murder the guy desperate enough to take a job hiding drugs in his ass? In my opinion no. Especially when we started with the guy pimping out a little girl! None of the other people he kills seem so bad after opening that way.
Although the author of the source novel, Brian Garfield, felt that DEATH WISH glorified vigilantism, it ends on a note of “this guy has completely lost touch with reality.” So I think this 2018 movie’s politics are actually a little more regressive than the original. Baldwin’s scenes are alone in the studio making long monologues that 1) filibuster the shit out of the running time and 2) justify racial profiling and shit with made up anecdotal evidence about babies getting shot. I think we’re supposed to find his arguments sympathetic. Also we’re not supposed to notice that there is a right wing radio host who seems to spend his whole show only talking about vigilantism and not, like, Hillary Clinton or you guys this political correctness is out of control on campus what about the antifas.
Some of the actors playing K’s victims are pretty good. I like the big scumbag pimp at the beginning talking very friendly and with a little bit of a kiddy lisp. Very skeezy. And the main drug gang guy (Richard Tyson, THREE O’CLOCK HIGH) is kinda funny and looks like a short, squat version of the drummer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That guy’s dealing with a traitor and he brings him out to some snowy woods (homage to DEATH HUNT?), ties him to a tree and squirts barbecue sauce on him. I thought this was a funny way to say “I’m about to burn you at the stake,” but then he makes a little speech about how wolves and bears will be attracted by the smell. Which, I mean, I don’t know. I’m no scientist or gourmet barbecue expert, maybe that’s a real thing.
You know how Nick Cave wrote a sequel to GLADIATOR where Maximus battles in the underworld and is eventually resurrected years after his death and becomes some kind of personification of war, battling in every major conflict across centuries? That’s my preferred explanation for this return of “Charles Bronson” and all his famous DEATH WISH outfits in an age of digital video and smart phones. I think we’re supposed to take him as an ageless Paul Kersey, since he only identifies himself as “K,” and is credited as “The Stranger / K.” He’ll look the same and wear the same clothes avenging robot crime in DEATH KISS 2050.
Perez is credited as writer, director, editor, cinematographer and composer (the opening credits say “The Darkest Machines,” but the end credits get cocky and add an a.k.a.) He has 18 directing credits since 2010, mostly horror and fantasy exploitation stuff. The ones I recognize the covers of are THE SNOW QUEEN and the mockbuster AMERICAN COWBOYS VS. ALIENS.
Having now seen DEATH KISS I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding why it exists. But I hope it plays on cable, confusing people and creating a weird idea about the timeline of Bronson’s life. Whenever they show a phone it’ll throw people off like when I watch the 1977 STAR WARS on cable and forget there’s gonna be a cg part all the sudden.
What’s next for Bronzploitation? I say remake DAMNATION ALLEY and other movies that the real Bronson was almost in or wanted for. Or put him in subgenres Bronson wasn’t around for, such as a cyberpunk thriller or found footage horror. Make a DEATH KISS 2 that makes DEATH WISH 3 look like NEVER BEEN KISSED. CHARLES BRONSON FIGHTS BACK FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE and THE CLONES OF CHARLES BRONSON would definitely be important contributions to our culture. Or what about a horror crossover called DEATHWISHMASTER? There is so much we can do with this technology, I just hope we find the right balance of boldness and ethics to do it right.
DEATH KISS comes to VOD and digital October 2nd.
P.S. Speaking of Bronson lookalikes, I just discovered that somebody put chunks of REASON FOR LIVING: THE JILL IRELAND STORY on Youtube, so I finally get to see how Lance Henriksen plays Bronson. (He doesn’t imitate the voice either.)
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.