Plot: vigilante cop purges town of criminals and other undesirables.
In the eight years separating War Machine (2010) and Death Kiss (2018) there has been exponential evolution in the work of California writer-director Rene Perez. Not only did he helm the lucrative The Dead and the Damned (2011-2015) and Playing with Dolls (2015-2017) franchises, he also has started paying homage to classic titles that were influential on his own work. A benefit of sort is that Little Red Riding Hood (2016) appears to be the last of his European fairytale adaptations. It genuinely makes you wish Perez would branch out of horror a little and try out different genres. With an average of two-to-four productions per year Perez dedicated the first half of 2018 to paying tribute to his favorite movies, namely The Punisher (1989, 2004) and Death Wish (1974, 2018) with The Punished (2018) and Death Kiss (2018), respectively. Death Kiss is, for all intents and purposes, the best Rene Perez production thus far.
Written, photographed, directed, and scored by Rene Perez Death Kiss oozes with that grime retro aesthetic of urban decay and sparse production design that defined the best, or most memorable, of 70s exploitation. Death Kiss’ most obvious forebear is the Michael Winner directed Charles Bronson actioner Death Wish (1974) and there’s a fair bit of the Clint Eastwood western High Plains Drifter (1973) to even things out. In other words, Death Kiss is an old-fashioned vigilante justice action-thriller. Death Kiss is minimalist in every respect. The premise is as basic as these things come, and the main cast is all but four people with only a handful of extras. The greatest asset to the production is Hungarian actor Robert Kovacs who has the Bronson style and mannerisms down to a T. It’s uncanny how close of an approximation Kovacs is to the late Bronson, and the resemblance is striking, even if he might not be half the actor Bronson was back in the day. It seems that Perez has found a muse in Kovacs (who subsequently took up the Robert Bronzi alias) as he returned in future Perez features.
In an act of penance rogue cop K (Robert Kovacs, as Robert Bronzi) has taken to the streets of an unspecified California town and vowed to rid it of its criminal element; be they drugdealers, human traffickers, and other assorted undesirables. Years ago a shootout with druglord Tyrell (Richard Tyson) resulted in a number of civilian casualties and property damage, something which he greatly regretted and he has been working to make amends for ever since. For the past several years K has been delivering money to the mailbox of Ana (Eva Hamilton) and her wheelchair using daughter Isabel (Leia Perez). With the help of Justice Radio host Dan Forthright (Daniel Baldwin) K has been able to track down Tyrell and his gang. He draws the ire of Tyrell by extracting helpless platinum blonde Tanya (Stormi Maya) from their heavily guarded compound. In the resulting gunfight K manages to dispose of Torch (Reese Austyn) and Tyrell’s bodyguard (J.D. Angstadt) sending the druglord into hiding with his girlfriend Malorie (Malorie Glavan). With the threat of bodily harm still looming over Ana and Isabel a confrontation between K and Tyrell seems all but inevitable…
Before anything else Death Kiss is a tribute to the 1970s grindhouse exploitation and more specifically a valentine to Michael Winner’s revenge fantasy Death Wish (1974) and its gradually underwhelming sequels. Shot to next for nothing in California Death Kiss is a near-plotless pastiche of every known convention and recreation over every recognizable scene from the Winner original with an added dose of gunfire and gore to drag it into the 21st century. To drive the point home Kovacs’ character has a similar build and wardrobe as the late Bronson and that he simply calls himself K (no doubt in reference to Paul Kersey). As with the original Death Kiss wants nothing more than to be a taboo-breaker and Daniel Baldwin’s Justice Radio host discusses everything from institutionalized disenfranchisement, violence and crime, racism, to the merits of vigilantism, law enforcement malfeasance, and widespread corruption in politics and the electorate. Baldwin delivers his monologues on these hot button issues with near-religious fervor and zeal giving credence to the idea that Perez cares about these topics. If anything, it gave a good hint of Perez’ likely political affiliations, something which his manifesto The Insurrection (2020) (especially egregious and strangely prophetical in light of the actual January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection) and Pro God - Pro Gun (2022) have served to strengthen. Perez is the polar opposite of Neil Breen and he’ll let you know at every turn.
To his everlasting credit Rene Perez always knew how to stage and lens an action scene, even as far as back as his laughably inept Little Red Riding Hood (2016) (thankfully Alanna Forte and Irina Levadneva provided the proverbial fireworks there). This being a Rene Perez feature there are a few headscratching moments. In the first act it is established that Ana feels unsafe and during the second act K instructs her how to handle a rifle. The lack of thematic follow-through in the closing act makes you wonder why the entire subplot was introduced in the first place. Had there been a third act scene where Ana saves K from certain death thanks to her newly-acquired marksman skills then at least there would have been some kind of narrative payoff. In another scene K has Stormi Maya’s Tanya bloodily kill her captor, but the scene seems to exist solely to have Maya wield a gun, as K never again (either before or after) will be seen exacting such punishment. Daniel Baldwin’s Dan Fortright acts as both as a Greek chorus and a replacement internal monologue for Robert Kovacs’ K, very much in the same way as Richard Tyson has done, and continues to do, for the Playing with Dolls (2015-2017) franchise. Except that Fortright has no arc of his own and mostly exists to humanize the cipher-like K. The special effects from Marcus Koch and Oliver Müller are put to good use once again. For an action-thriller the gore is either excessive or absent.
As these things go any Rene Perez feature is measured by the quality of the babes and here Eva Hamilton and Stormi Maya raise the temperatures. Stormi has been with Perez since Playing with Dolls: Havoc (2017) and Perez debutant Eva Hamilton (apparently the new brunette Perez muse with Nicole Stark notably absent) would be seen again in The Dragon Unleashed (2018) and his other exploitation tribute Cabal (2020). It wouldn’t be a Rene Perez film without at least one topless scene and Death Kiss has both Hamilton and Maya flaunting their bust. Death Kiss is the sort of stylistic exercise that makes you wish Rene Perez would finally helm that long awaited LETHAL Ladies imitation we know he has been pining to make. Imagine what a director like Perez could do with a stretch of beach, palm trees, a warm color palette and a female ensemble cast in pastel-colored bikinis. If Andy Sidaris could do it in the 80s and 90s with the LETHAL Ladies and Jim Wynorski made a career out of boobs, so can he. All it takes is some perfunctory story to line up Alanna Forte, Elonda Seawood, Eva Hamilton, Spring Inés Peña, Jenny Allford, Omnia Bixler, Irina Levadneva, and Stormi Maya; Breen babes Jennifer Autry, Victoria Viveiros, and Danielle Andrade or low budget genre queens as Samantha Robinson, Fulvia Santoni, Madeline Brumby, Ellie Church or Alyss Winkler against his usual team of stuntmen. Hell, he could call it B.U.S.T. (or Branch of Unity, Strategy & Tactics). Just make it happen, Rene. Eventually someone’s gotta do it.
If Death Kiss is proof of anything it’s that Perez has finally come to the point was he has assembled the necessary skills to convincingly imitate the very films he was inspired by. Death Kiss effectively captures the misanthropy, the nihilism, the gratuitous violence, and rampant urban decay that made Death Wish (1974) the cinematic classic that it is. The ambiguous open ending leaves the door wide open for potential sequels, but if Perez is smart he’s not going to dilude Death Kiss by any unnecessary sequels. After all it were four sequels that directly sent Death Wish to its death throes. Death Kiss is a fine piece of low budget filmmaking exactly because it is a stand-alone feature. If Rene Perez does want to do capitalize on a trend he’d better put a gun in Eva Hamilton’s hand and make his female-centric action flicks as Furie (2019) or Maria (2019). Given his penchant for helming derivates or imitations of classic action cinema, it makes you wish how Perez would fare in doing a Die Hard (1988), The Terminator (1984), Above the Law (1988), Under Siege (1992), Commando (1985), or Hard Target (1993) imitation. That, a much overdue Nemesis (1992) sequel, or that Ginger (1971) or Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987) derivate he was destined to direct. In little less than a decade Perez has become a suprisingly effective and brutally efficient low budget filmmaker. Bravo, Rene.