Writing about Rene Perez’s Death Kiss is a difficult prospect. The film itself is a wreck: a mishmash of gun fetishism, pubescent sexual rescue narratives and reactionary right-wing politics topped off with the ghoulish casting of Robert Kovacs Bronzi, a Hungarian actor whose entire career is owed to his uncanny resemblance to Charles Bronson. In addition, the film opens with an execrable white panic sequence where Bronzi’s unnamed hero, The Stranger, rescues a light skinned child prostitute from her African American pimp, guns blazing righteously, activating mini tsunamis of blood that might have pushed the violence into the realm of comedy had the circumstances not been so dire.
As a viewer, this would have been more than enough for me to quit watching- there are certain realms where films, particularly those made primarily for entertainment purposes, should tread lightly. Perez’s direction of the scene makes it abundantly clear that he has no message in mind other than offering titillation and some thinly veiled race hatred. I considered reviewing the first five minutes, which is all it should take to encourage viewers to find their morbid entertainment elsewhere, or typing the word “nope” about a thousand times and offering that as my semi-expert opinion. Instead, out of a sense of duty to good folks at Psycho Drive-In and the optimistic idea that even the most misbegotten idea could have a kernel of genius in it, I decided to finish Death Kiss. Though I cannot bring myself to write a traditional review, what follows is a collection of thoughts that crossed my mind as the minutes slowly crawled past.
As words like manscaping and metrosexual (both words that were not caught by my spell check) enter the lexicon, there is a tendency to lionize the more rugged actors of the past, their films to be enjoyed both ironically as throwback cheez-wiz and a blueprint for masculinity that forgives a lot of truly vile behavior in the service of at best semi-heroic actions. Bronson, aside from his work in Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and Once Upon a Time in America made his bones doing some pretty ugly things on film. There is a tendency in looking back to sand off some of these rough edges and lump Bronson in with Steve McQueen, with whom he shared a screen, and Burt Reynolds, similarly mustachioed but less off-putting to members of the opposite sex.
Even with the nostalgia factor, there really isn’t a viable defense for the Death Wish series; the films, despite their pop culture cachet, are simply lurid explorations of white panic overlaid with some creepily sexualized rape scenes. There was a time when I would have trusted whatever bastion of cool recommended Bronson and tried to justify what I was viewing. As an adult, however, I try to choose entertainment that has at least some redeeming value., and there isn’t much in great majority of Bronson’s films. He works as an idea, but in practice is just another angry, scared white man trading on his privilege and exorcising his demons with a firearm. This is not something that interests me, even if just to understand the motivations behind such films and the mindset of people who watch them.
And it is just this part of Bronson’s filmography that Perez is interested in; Bronzi’s character is terse, violent, and utterly sold on the fact that justice comes from the barrel of a gun. The Death Wish films at least were a response to the urban decay of the Seventies, where cities seemed to hold real danger for law-abiding citizens. The inherent classism and racism of this perspective aside, the motley assemblage of dirt bags in Death Kiss strike a hollow note. The modern threat of violence is much greater, but its specter lingers not on city streets but schools and places of worship. Perez is seeking to strike the same the nerve with viewers, but the viewers with whom his film will resonate are not marginalized or on the run; they have been emboldened to act with impunity. There really is no need for a vigilante in the age of the good guy with a gun.
What are Richard Tyson and Daniel Baldwin doing here?
One of the genuine surprises in Death Kiss is the presence of a couple of recognizable faces. Richard Tyson plays the main antagonist in the film, giving a believable performance as a truly rancid human being. He gamely blusters his way through the film and it is nice, particularly for fans of Hardball and Three O’Clock High, to see him on screen again. There is a certain sadness, however, in seeing him throw his all into the wooden dialogue and puerile menace that comprises his character. Though Tyson had his artistic lunch money stolen by Val Kilmer, there should be a better paycheck for him than playing a heavy opposite Bronzi. In the age of streaming, there should be something more worthwhile for Tyson to do than spout racial epithets, menace an actress, and be coated in barbeque sauce.
Much the same can be said for Daniel Baldwin’s role as right-wing radio host Dan Forthright. It is a mark of the movie’s quality that I had to take a few minutes to determine that this was probably meant to be his on-air name; Death Kiss is not the most nuanced of films. Even with this allowance, Baldwin’s character is utterly without depth, merely bludgeoning the audience with the right-wing ideology that Death Wish felt its audience was smart enough to pick up for itself. Speaking through a haze of cigarette smoke, Baldwin delivers the id speech that was once relegated to the realm of the right-wing gun nut but has increasingly become part and parcel of the mainstream Republican party. Baldwin spins chilling tales of crimes committed against law-abiding citizens and then rhapsodizes about how guns offer a final and permanent solution to the problem of the criminal. He delivers these soliloquies with the zeal of the converted. Though I would not consider myself a fan of Mr. Baldwin’s work, he is an actor whose work I have enjoyed. It is genuinely disconcerting to see him embrace such fringe opinions, but more so to think that there are countless people out there who are glad to see one of those Hollywood types who finally gets it.
Is Eva Hamilton a full-time actress?
Eva Hamilton, as the female lead Ana, does good work with extremely limited material, playing a reformed “party girl” who is doubly paying for her sins- first by having a child out of wedlock and then having that child shot, possibly by The Stranger on one of his first raids on a drug house. Perez doesn’t bother to fill in what motivated him to be there in the first place but uses The Stranger’s guilty association with Ana to humanize him. Given the level on which Death Kiss is operating, the director also indulges in a breast-baring pseudo romantic subplot that is charitably described as ill-conceived and more accurately as repellent. Yet as Hamilton’s Eva performs her penance, first pushing her wheelchair bound daughter up a poorly paved road and then mustering up the gumption to throw herself at Bronzi in a shooting scene that must be what passes for foreplay in the NRA crowd, she retains a sense of dignity. Hamilton is in Death Kiss, but she manages to exist somehow outside it. Given that Hamilton is not really a name actress, the question is not, as with Baldwin and Tyson, whether she should be in a film of this ilk, but rather if Death Kiss is all that life has to give her. In a film that is utterly devoid of anything resembling human sentiment, Eva Hamilton reached through the screen. I hope she’s happy, and that this acting job was the culmination of something, rather than just another lousy job she took to pay the rent. She seems to deserve much better.
How much content is being made? Where does the money come from? Who is watching it?
Perhaps it’s because I am just barely too young to remember the Bruce Li, Bronson Lee, Bruce Le, and Bruce Lai phenomenon, but I am incredulous that a movie starring a dubbed Hungarian actor resembling Charles Bronson is a money-making proposition. I am even more astounded that in the age of the shared universe blockbuster, there are still producers grinding out dreck that I would have found on the racks at the Pantry Store in Salem, West Virginia in the Eighties. I never want to see Death Kiss again, and I would probably cross the street to avoid Bronzi- and Richard Tyson and Daniel Baldwin for that matter- but the fact that it does exist means that there is somehow, somewhere an audience for the absolute grittiest and grimiest that film has to offer. Though Death Kiss, for many reasons, is not a film that I would recommend even to those who enjoy grindhouse movies or those looking for a romp in the vein of The Room, it exists. That means that somehow, somewhere a tighter script is being written and a better film is being planned. Bronzi probably won’t be in it, but Eva Hamilton might be. And if there’s a good role, maybe Richard Tyson could take it.