This was the first of the popular vigilante thrillers not to be directed by Michael Winner - although some would argue he wasn’t doing much directing on the other three. Instead another Cannon Films alumnus, J. Lee Thompson stepped into the breach for his seventh collaboration with star Charles Bronson. It opens with a nicely handled sequence where a damsel is distressed by first one, then two, then three psycho rapists, until Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) blows them away. But when Kersey unmasks one he sees his own face, and wakes up from the nightmare in a cold sweat. It’s as close as the film - scripted by Gail Morgan Hickman - gets to psychoanalysis, but Death Wish 4 throws a few offbeat touches into the tired vigilante formula.
Kersey, now settled back into his job as an architect, is happily involved with journalist, Karen Sheldon (Kay Lenz) and dotes on her daughter, Erica (Dana Barron). When Erica fatally overdoses on cocaine, and her boyfriend Randy (Jesse Dabson) is knifed by drug-dealers, Kersey doles out some vigilante justice. He is contacted by enigmatic millionaire, Nathan White (John P. Ryan) who, driven by the drug-related death of his own daughter, provides Kersey with the weapons and information needed to bring down cocaine kingpins, Ed Zacharias (Perry Lopez) and the Romero brothers. Eliminating various key players, Kersey tricks the rival gang lords into a turf war, but comes under suspicion from dogged Detective Reiner (George Dickerson) and Detective Phil Nozaki (Soon-Tek Oh).
Instead of low-level street criminals, Death Wish 4 pits Kersey against the fat cats and affluent businessmen making drug crime a multimillion dollar industry. “Everyone is using drugs these days”, growls Karen’s tabloid editor. “Doctors, lawyers, businessmen - it’s the American way of life!” The film takes a typically mid-Eighties, simplistic view of the drug problem and Thompson indulges crass shock tactics like the mortician who unveils several drug-related deaths, including a thirteen year old prostitute, but then again this is a glossy exploitation movie. The drug lords are all sub-Scarface caricatures, but memorable victims of Kersey’s vigilante rampage include the opera-loving hitman forever bickering with his trashy girlfriend (“I wish he’d drop dead”, she says before his corpse crashes through her windshield), a video retailer with a store adorned with Cannon movie posters, and a young Danny Trejo blown up by a trick bottle of wine.
Quirky scenes like those hold the interest, even though the script wastes a potentially interesting complication when Kersey kills a corrupt cop. Thompson handles things in professional, if anonymous fashion, hindered by lacklustre performances from the supporting cast. Action-wise, the oilfield gang war Kersey ignites with a single shot proves a reasonably exciting set-piece, but if the shootouts are less trashy than Death Wish 3 (1985), they’re also less fun. A surprise twist plays Kersey for a patsy and leads to the film’s best sequence, a surreal shootout at a roller-skating rink! While the conclusion is shallow and dealt with in an offhand manner typical for this series, it scores points for being more downbeat than the norm.