Forget that Charles Bronson passed away in 2003. And disregard the negativity that greeted Eli Roth’s 2018 Death Wish remake since trailer one. Rene Perez, writer/director of the recently released throwback Death Kiss (2018), clearly didn’t get the memo. Either one of them.
Enlisting Robert Kovacs, a Hungarian actor known for looking remarkably like Bronson and for little else, Perez has devised an independent tribute to the deceased star’s iconic action franchise. In place of Paul Kersey, Bronson’s robust vigilante, Kovacs is known only as “The Stranger” (though he does at one coy point give his name as “K”). It doesn’t really matter what he is called, for The Stranger is more caricature than character; it’s a criticism often leveled at Bronson’s original protagonist as well, but the two are light years apart in terms of development and depth.
In any case, Kovacs looks the part, bearing what is indeed an uncanny resemblance to Bronson, and as he emerges from the shadows a stoic, implacable protector, his mere appearance is a curious cause for consideration. The ploy of having Charles Bronson seemingly resurrected to resume his most famous role is the obvious selling point of Death Kiss. The hitch in this gimmick, inevitably perhaps, is that the physical marvel is hardly enough to sustain a story, let alone one as shoddy as this.
That’s not to say the superficial plot of Death Kiss is too far removed from one of its lesser Death Wish predecessors, or any number of other Cannon quickies done low-down and dirty on a miniscule budget. And not unlike the Kersey of old, the pitiless Stranger appears as an unfaltering righter of wrongs. On one hand, he furtively helps single mother Ana (Eva Hamilton) and her wheelchair-bound daughter, regularly stuffing envelopes of cash into their mailbox.
On the other, when he isn’t engaged in a series of random nocturnal callings (taking down a “keister bunny” is one stand-out campaign, ending in the oral discharge of intentionally ingested drugs), The Stranger is primarily preoccupied with Tyrell (Richard Tyson), a very bad guy who is as one dimensional as everyone else in Death Kiss. Tyrell is at times shockingly ruthless, especially in a particularly disturbing torture scene that involves patricide and rape. It doesn’t take much to connect The Stranger’s affinity for Ana and his crusade against malicious Tyrell. But as the film’s hastily realized narrative thrust, it scarcely provides a satisfying measure of engagement or empathy.
While the Bronson doppelganger device is what drives and no doubt enabled Death Kiss to begin with (its tagline: “Justice has a familiar face”), Perez does an intermittently fine job of making his film slightly more than just a hokey homage. Acting as his own cinematographer (he also edited the film and did the score), Perez is obviously a fan of the material. Perez hits on many of Death Wish’s regular touchstones from The Stranger’s attire to the over-the-top bloodshed and a proclivity for deadpan one-liners (his voice poorly dubbed, Kovacs’s dialogue is mercifully kept to a minimum).
Perez also shows a certain degree of skill when it comes to staging action, specifically a mid-section set piece with a junkyard pursuit/shootout and a creative range of arresting camera angles and generally fluid movement. Less remarkable – the worst moments of Death Kiss, in fact – are the film’s awkward digressions between The Stranger and Ana; their over-long alone time includes a shooting lesson, soft-core synthesizer accompaniment, and the strangely strong suggestion of some sort of romantic chemistry.
Death Kiss will surely evoke Roth’s remake, a film maligned (and misunderstood) by most. Like that more accomplished picture, and like the first Death Wish in 1974, Perez’s reworking tackles in bald-faced form a variety of social ills plaguing its nondescript urban epicenter (Roth’s emphasis on the specificity of Chicago, however valid, was part of its objection). Of course, Death Kiss is plainly less serious than either of these films, but that doesn’t stop Daniel Baldwin’s talk radio personality Dan Forthright from espousing his brand of incendiary commentary.
Personally, invested in The Stranger’s conduct, Forthright advocates the necessity of an “angel of death” situating the film in an approximate cultural context, always part of the Death Wish mythology. Forthright’s Limbaugh-esque blowhard questions police efficacy and priority (he’s expressly concerned with child sex trafficking, which, other than its opening scene, doesn’t seem to have much to do with Death Kiss). He also promotes, in decidedly un-PC fashion, such assertions as, “An eye for an eye isn’t just revenge. It helps prevent future crimes.” All while the camera does a slow pan to an American flag hung by his microphone.
Death Kiss marks the sixteenth film directed by Rene Perez since 2010 (good or bad, that in itself is admirable), and though it’s a sub-par movie, there is no denying its affectionate sense of nostalgia. It’s like Terminator Genisys (2015) or The Predator (2018), superior films that felt like fan fiction brought to life. It also serves as a reminder of how the passage of time can shape the fickle moods of audiences and critics. While they were typically dumped on in their day, the films that informed Death Kiss are now the same ones longed for by factions who decry, accurately enough yet not without irony, “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”
Unfortunately, an exercise like Death Kiss can but scratch the surface. An inherent appeal of these earlier films is the era in which they were made. They don’t make movies like they used to because they can’t; it was a wholly different time, a different world. Those films looked different, they sounded different, and audiences were receptive to considerably different content. Temper expectations and Death Kiss may deliver, at least sporadically. Otherwise, it’s best to simply revisit the Death Wish films that sparked the inspiration in the first place.