Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Discovering the joy of Charles Bronson

21 comments
Movie blogger Dominic Corry discovers the joy of Charles Bronson movies.

Charles Bronson's '70s output is worth revisiting. Photo / Supplied
Charles Bronson's '70s output is worth revisiting. Photo / Supplied

Even the most dedicated film fans have large gaps in their knowledge - there simply aren't enough hours in the day to see everything.

While other notable omissions in my film-watching repertoire (Pedro Almodovar, Hal Hartley) remain on my to-do list, I recently got around to acquainting myself with the 1970s work of actor Charles Bronson.

Growing up I was aware of him as the quiet one from classics like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Once Upon A Time In the West, but as a child of the '80s, my principal impression of him was as the squinty-eyed, grumpy-looking old guy on the covers of low-rent VHS perennials like Death Wish 3 and 4 and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects. And Death Wish 5.

He didn't seem like he had anything to offer me then, and I let that perception carry through to adulthood.

But that all changed recently when, thanks to the wise guiding hand of Ant Timpson, New Zealand's Grand High Serpent of All Things Movie, I watched the 1972 film The Mechanic. Holy wow is it an awesome movie.

Bronson plays a master hitman who attempts to teach his skills to a protegé played by Jan Michael Vincent (Airwolf). It's a propulsive action thriller with a European car chase finale that outdoes the best parts of Ronin.

I've always considered the James Bond films to be the main forerunners to the modern action movie model, but with its mixture of large scale set-pieces, awesome car chases and a rough 'n' tumble protagonist who was ready for anything, The Mechanic was laying down the formula for modern movie action in 1972.

Bronson is a picture of understated cool here - the opening assassination takes place entirely without dialogue and is worth seeing the film for alone.

I'd never really stopped to consider the Charles Bronson of the '70s, but after watching The Mechanic, I realised what a fool I'd been and went looking for more.

Next up was Walter Hill's 1975 depression-era street-fighting drama Hard Times.

Bronson plays Chaney, an aging bare-knuckle boxer who teams up with a shyster played by James Coburn to make money on pick-up fights in 1933 New Orleans. Grown men smashing each other over, then cheating each other out of the winnings. That's basically it. But it rocked my world something awesome.

If nothing else, Hard Times makes a very strong argument for the notion that the youth-ification of the male leading actor has led to a sharp dive in the authority and thus the dramatic presence of male leading characters. He was 53 when he played the role, but Bronson's performance convinced me that Chaney could take on Warrior's Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy at the same time and still walk away.

Chaney is a man of few words, but when they are spoken in the actor's uniquely indelible accent, you don't ever doubt him. Also, Bronson never had a better foil than Coburn. I think this is my new favourite movie.

Next I took in 1974's Mr Majestyk, in which Bronson plays the title character, the owner of a watermelon farm who comes up against both local criminals and a mob hitman. It's freaking great.

Remember how TV networks used to clumsily replace swear words in action movies when they played during prime time? "F**k you!" would become "Forget you!", "Suck my d***!" became "Suck my socks!", etc. One of the most memorable of these is how "Motherf***er" often became "Melon farmer".

In Mr Majestyk, Bronson plays an actual melon farmer, and is constantly referred to as such throughout the movie: "I'll get that damn melon farmer!" etc. This felt worth mentioning.

After Mr Majestyk, I sought out the film that appears to define Bronson's legacy - 1974's Death Wish - which was released in cinemas just one week after Mr Majestyk. The vigilante classic hasn't aged as well as the other Bronson films I've mentioned here, but I still appreciated what Charlie brought to the film, and I'll probably watch the sequels. Maybe not the fifth one.

What's most exciting for me right now is that there are plenty of rad-looking '70s Charles Bronson films I've yet to take in, like The Stone Killers, St Ives and Breakheart Pass. Plus I really need to watch The Dirty Dozen again.

I'm sure most film fans don't need to be alerted to the fact that Charles Bronson was a bad-ass melon farmer who made heaps of awesome movies - he's one of cinema's most iconic tough guys.

But in never challenging my youthful dismissal of his work, I remained until recently unexposed to the amazing run of films he had in the '70s, and unable to appreciate how truly great a movie presence he could be.

If you've never exposed yourself to Bronson's golden period, which includes some of the coolest movies ever made, Hard Times or The Mechanic are great places to start.

* Are you a Charles Bronson fan? What are you favourites of his films? Has anyone seen 1981's Death Hunt? Worth checking out? Comment below!

Follow Dominic Corry on Twitter.

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n3 at 26 Jul 2014 00:19:19 Processing Time: 508ms