Sometimes, a guilty pleasure can be a lot of fun. Watching the straight-to-video, Lou Ferrigno, action DVD “Instant Death” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) revived memories of Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” movies, Liam Neeson’s “Taken” trilogy, and the Sylvester Stallone “Rambo” franchise. If you haven’t seen “Death Wish” (1974), you’ll have a chance to watch Bruce Willis step into Bronson’s shoes for the 2017 remake when it comes out later this year. Suffice to say, “Death Wish” dealt with a mild-mannered New York City architect who embarked on revenge binge after his wife’s murder and his daughter’s rape during a home invasion. The Charles Bronson hero meted out vigilante justice from the barrel of a revolver to a variety of low-life criminals that prowled the streets after sundown. Ironically, he never found the hoodlums who terrified his family. Nevertheless, while cleaning up the city streets, he evolved into an urban legend. “Death Wish” qualified as one of the notable examples of the revenge movie genre about a private citizen who avenged his relatives after the police proved ineffectual.
“Skin Traffik” director Ara Paiaya and scenarist Adam Davidson replicate the revenge movie formula without tampering with any of the usual clichés. Were it not for the steely presence of body-builder Lou Ferrigno, who rampaged on television as “The Incredible Hulk” from 1977 to 1982, “Instant Death” would constitute just another routine crime thriller. Indeed, Ferrigno is the star rather than merely a supporting character or an actor appearing in a cameo. The 66-year old Ferrigno performed all his stunts. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Can Ferrigno act? Although he seems self-conscious around other actors, Ferrigno plays a flawed father figure hero who might behave in such an aloof manner. The personification of the Grim Reaper, Ferrigno’s paterfamilias suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. The realistic, gritty action occurs primarily in contemporary London, and the filmmakers pit the former “Hulk” against a repellent Cockney mobster nicknamed ‘Razor.’ Jerry Anderson plays Razor, and he is a dead ringer for popular British tough-guy actor Ray Winstone. Anderson plays such a deranged dastard that the actor should think twice about strolling in public without bodyguards. Imaging what Ferrigno’s revenge-minded father will do to Razor when they tangle heightens the suspense of “Instant Death.”
Ferrigno plays veteran Special Forces fighter John Bradley. Although he has been out of combat for six months, Bradley hasn’t recovered entirely from the untold horror. The lonely lifestyle that he describes to his sympathetic psychiatrist recalls the toxic activities that Robert De Niro’s cabbie Travis Bickle indulged in throughout director Martin Scorsese’s classic, urban shoot’em up “Taxi Driver” (1976). The psychiatrist recommends Bradley reconnect with his two surviving family members: his grown-up daughter Jane (Tania Staite of “Crossing Bridges”) and his young granddaughter Wendy (newcomer Sophie Wembridge), who live in London, England. Bradley catches a flight out of New York City. After he lands and sets out to visit Jane and Wendy, Bradley witnesses a vicious gangland slaying. A ferocious underworld enforcer, Razor (Jerry Anderson), is eradicating all rival drug dealers in his domain. Anybody who peddles narcotics on Razor’s turf won’t die from old age. The desperate fools who buy those forbidden narcotics don’t last long. Razor is torturing an independent drug dealer, Carnie (Sven Hopla of “The Foundling”), when Bradley sees the murder. Not only does Razor kill the rival drug dealer, but he kills another innocent bystander who walks in front of Bradley when Razor tries to shoot our hero. Razor dispatches his intimidating henchmen to liquidate Bradley. Before he eludes Razor’s thugs, Bradley guns down two of them.
A furious Razor demands Bradley’s head. A young street hoodlum locates Bradley after he shadows him to his daughter’s apartment building. Naturally, Jane is ecstatic about finally seeing her dad again. Bradley rarely spent time around his family while he was in the service. He explains he must visit an old friend in town the next day. The old friend turns out to be Colonel Neal (newcomer Michael James MacMahon) who served with Bradley in the military. Essentially, Colonel Neal is comparable to Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna) from Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” quartet. Trautman acted as the go-between Rambo and those who availed themselves at his combat skills. Predictably, Razor and his hooligans show up at Jane’s door inquiring about Bradley. When Jane cannot tell them where her father has gone, Razor’s henchmen rape her on the dining room table. Later, Razor brandishes a razor and carves up Jane’s face. Before he leaves, Razor smothers helpless Wendy with a pillow. After Bradley learns about his family, he launches his own crusade of vengeance against Razor and his depraved crew.
“Instant Death” resorts to neither humor nor comic relief characters. The violence is staged with a sense of spontaneity, and our hero emerges as just as cold-blooded as his nemeses. For example, Bradley holds an arrogant British gangster at gunpoint, and the gangster proposes they negotiate. Our grief-stricken hero refuses, and the gangster’s head vanishes in a bloody explosion. This could rate as the darkest movie that Lou Ferrigno has ever toplined, and he delivers a solemn performance as John Bradley. Paiaya produced the straightforward but violent “Instant Death” on the streets of London for added authenticity. He does a good job of establishing both the characters of Bradley and Razor before he turns them loose on each other. Part of the fun of watching “Instant Death” is that you can savor what the hero will do to his foes. Mind you, you won’t find any gratuitous nudity in the unrated DVD version of “Instant Death,” because it emphasizes blood, gore, and guys. The homicidal content and the casual depiction of murder and rape may appall the squeamish but appeal simultaneously to stout-hearted action junkie fans who can tolerate a little blood and gore. One of the chief virtues of “Instant Death” is British director Ara Paiaya doesn’t let his efficient 84-minute melodrama wear out its welcome.