He Sure Looks Like Charles Bronson… ‘Death Kiss’ (2018) – Movie Review

Not since the halcyon days of Bruce Li/Lai/Le has there been a motion picture sold on the intentional deception of its star looking like some other guy. Considering I first caught wind of Death Kiss from a headline that announced Charles Bronson’s return to acting (and from the grave), the trick’s been working.

What not enough people stopped to wonder is how badly we needed Charles Bronson and his vigilante-of-a-certain-age resurrected.

Much like its double-take star Robert Bronzi (Escape From Cell Block 13 2018), Director Rene Perez’s Death Kiss wants you to let your eyes go fuzzy enough to see the film as Death Wish 6. Not that they need to be too fuzzy; the filmmakers get as close as they can without needing lawyers or genuine necromancy. When our hero, credited only as The Stranger, thaws enough to tell someone his real name, all he gives them is K… As in Kersey, the last name of Bronson’s long-suffering hero. Ominous mention is made of his past interventions. They even make the guy dress like Bronson did in the original Death Wish, an outfit that makes more sense on an architect-turned-assassin than a dyed-in-the-wool killer that’s supposed to raise no alarm around the muggers, murderers and rapists he’s hunting down.

But Death Kiss didn’t need to revive the franchise’s mustier politics. By default, vigilante movies operate in a violent fantasyland where law only gets in the way of justice best delivered by a Good Guy With A Gun. And that’s exactly what Rush Limbaugh-esque radio host Dan Forthright (a worryingly convincing Daniel Baldwin: John Carpenter’s Vampires 1998) is calling for. His intermittent rants start at the amusingly selfish – “Why are cops giving me speeding tickets when the real criminals are out there?” – and ends with bad faith arguments built on generalized paranoia and plain ol’ racism – “Cops shouldn’t respond to domestic disputes when the real criminals are out there; profiling is bad, except for ‘obvious’ criminals because everyone knows what ‘obvious’ criminals look like.”

It coats the movie in a grimy sheen that only gets more toxic with a late-game twist that both demystifies The Stranger and writes off his random, excessive violence as God’s work.

It doesn’t help that The Stranger is as blank as his name. He wanders aimlessly around The City, which opens on a metropolitan drone shot that immediately cuts to a suburban shack, and is within easy driving distance of snow-capped mountains. Occasionally, he’ll stumble into a criminal and show them the path of righteousness by way of a big gun and the most comically exaggerated blood squibs I’ve ever seen. We later discover his soft(ish) side, but it’s a tough sell after an early scene where he scares off a homeless man from a barrel fire and burns some jewelry he didn’t want instead of giving it to the poor guy he just threatened into the cold. When The Stranger does say something, it’s either overcooked or a stilted means to setup his next overcooked line, all delivered in a dubbed voice that sounds neither like Bronson nor like something that’d come out of a man built like Bronzi. He is cool, and if you want anything more than that, you’re in the wrong theater.

That might as well be the tagline for Death Kiss. Everything about it aches to be cool. Bronzi’s familiar etched-in-stone frown… The gratuitous violence against central casting stereotypes… The cold contrast and burnt shadows of its pseudo-grindhouse cinematography… An unhealthy dose of slow-motion… A rough-and-tumble villain (Richard Tyson: Kindergarten Cop 1990) so bad, he beats his wife and rapes someone else’s… The standard hardboiled, heart-of-gold subplot about a struggling single mother (Eva Hamilton: Ruin Me 2017) and her wheelchair-bound daughter, who reminds us of her pain in lines like this:

“I’m crippled, mom. No one’s ever going to love me. I can’t even walk.”

But nothing spells out the problems of Death Kiss like its club-ready synth score. It doesn’t fit the modern setting, nor the ‘70s trappings of the series and star its begging you to remember fondly. It’s cool for the sake of being cool, without much thought given to the ultimate effect.

That’s forgivable enough in the soundtrack. It’s less forgivable when The Stranger makes a rape victim kill a bad guy who was around when she was assaulted, but not actually the rapist. It’s supposed to be empowering. It plays like a rightfully traumatized woman being forced to do something else even more traumatic for little emotional payoff by an almost-silent weirdo who looks startlingly like Charles Bronson.

Before you pull the trigger on Death Kiss, ask yourself just how badly you wanted to watch Charles Bronson gun down a few minorities for old time’s sake. It’s an impressive, occasionally unsettling, sleight of hand seeing Bronzi go through the motions. But I stopped shaking my head after the second scene and somewhere around the 15 minute mark, I began to wonder if I enjoyed Charles Bronson movies… or just Charles Bronson himself.

Like the Bruce Li/Lai/Le pictures of the 1970s, Death Kiss is nothing more than a knock-off. But those landed when Bruce Lee was at the white-hot height of his popularity, still delivering a shadow of the martial arts action his name guaranteed. But what does Charles Bronson’s name guarantee? And who’s been watching the clock since Death Wish V: The Face of Death landed in 1994?

The only reason to see Death Kiss is for the squinted novelty of seeing Charles Bronson in something new, and if that’s what you’re looking for, the trailer should sufficiently scratch that itch.

About Jeremy Herbert

Jeremy Herbert enjoys frozen beverages, loud shirts and drive-in theaters. When not writing about movies, he makes them for the price of a minor kitchen appliance.

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