As stoic as ever, Charles Bronson is back in the uncalled-for Death Wish V: The Face of Death, and he does what he’s done in all the Death Wish movies: He takes the law into his own hands and blows away the scum of the earth. Nowadays, that doesn’t make him much different from Steven Seagal. But back in the ’70s, Death Wish was one of the most controversial films to hit the screen, stirring a debate that spilled onto the editorial pages. Was the film advocating vigilante violence, or just exploiting it?

Bronson’s Paul Kersey was a pulp hero waiting to happen — a liberal architect who’s soft on crime until rapists leave his wife dead and his daughter catatonic. From then on, he’s a single-minded avenger who stalks the streets while tabloids sensationalize his attacks, citizens cheer, and city hall secretly sighs in relief. The filmmakers, dispensing with any irony, take advantage of the audience’s sympathy for vigilantism. If the cartoonish villains and colorful violence don’t convince, the clincher comes at the end, when a relocated Kersey arrives in Chicago and grinningly points his trigger finger at some bus-station punks.

That one gesture sets the tone for the sequels in which Kersey becomes increasingly larger-than-life-with weapons to match. The shamelessly rehashed Death Wish II finds Kersey in L.A., methodically hunting down those responsible for his daughter’s death (just as she’s recovering from her assault in the first Death Wish). The preposterously Rambo-esque Death Wish 3 sends him to New York City’s bombed-out slums to mow down “creeps,” using machine guns and missile launchers. In the rote and remote Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, he’s back in L.A., with time bombs and sophisticated rifles, offing big-time drug dealers.

Now a grizzled 73, Bronson can’t be expected to spend Death Wish V running around shooting people. Instead, he uses Spy vs. Spy tactics to punish the mobsters who killed his fiancee (Lesley-Anne Down). He poisons one thug with a cyanide-stuffed cannoli, blows up another with a remote-control explosive hidden in a soccer ball, and shrink-wraps a third. This might make an appropriately absurd finale for a series that long ago went over the top. But Paul Kersey’s not finished yet! “If you need any help, give me a call,” he tells a cop, just before the final credits. The worst may be yet to come. Death Wish: C

Death Wish
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