Bronson

movie cinema review

I'm not actually a Charles Bronson fan, but a friend urged me to see Death Wish, and I liked it, so I watched a bunch of Bronson films. I'd seen him mostly in bit parts previously, and it turns out that he is a really good actor who has been in a lot of really good movies. Here is a list of all the movies I have seen with Bronson as a leading actor.

Violent City

This is a unique, marvelous, beautiful, strange film made in Italy doubling as America. The story muddles flashbacks with flashforwards with skill and style, telling a unique and somewhat brutal story about a professional killer, a reluctant romance, revenge, and lots more. This kind of movie really makes you appreciate non-Hollywood approaches to cinema, because it's so unique in style and in story. Really good film. Highly recommended.

Dead to Rights

A TV movie about a serial killer who is preying upon nuns, and of course taunting the police. There are moments where some below-average acting shows, but over-all it's a good and involving story. There isn't much detective work involved, it's pretty straight story that progresses as you would expect, but it's entertaining enough and the finale is appropriately tense. Probably not a movie I would watch over and over, but definitely worth a viewing.

Chino (aka "Valdez The Halfbreed")

This, I believe, is the definitive Bronson western, and right up there with one of the greatest western movies I have seen. It isn't really a traditional western (note that what I consider "traditional westerns" are all Italian), as it has no big gunfight sequence and no blatantly evil villain. Mostly it's about a quiet, stoic cowboy who raises horses, the woman who crosses his path, and the boy who rides in looking for work. It's a simple story, and that's partly what makes it so great. It rings true.

The real beauty is in how unspectacular the story is, right up to the bitter end. And the message of transience is profoundly affecting. The music is gorgeous, the scenery is beautiful and lonely. A truly great film. In fact, I would venture to say that it is, in a strange way, what "Once Upon a Time in the West" should have been (in terms of satisfyingly beautiful Bronson westerns). It is a perfect film. See it.

Borderline

A movie about the US border patrol along the Mexican border. When a coyote (human trafficker) shoots and kills a border patrol officer in order to get his group of immigrants in, the border patrol, led by Bronson, goes into full swing to get their man. Bronson goes under cover, he sets up busts, he orders forensics on tomatoes, and lots of other border patrol type things. It's not a bad film, bit it's not a terribly innovative one either. You get exactly what is advertised: a movie about a border patrol.

This is a tough backdrop for a movie, especially viewed today, when the US is literally taking lethal action against people trying to enter its borders. The movie's attitude seems to be that there are no winners: it doesn't slander the Mexican workers for trying to find work in America, but the border patrol is not condemned for catching them and sending them back. It's a pretty neutral look at a frightening situation that today has developed into a human rights violation that exposes the hypocrisy of one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

Neutral, that is, until the very end. A final credit screen gives statistics on how many Mexican immigrants get into the US. It seemed to me that suddenly the movie is warning the viewer about how many immigrants are arriving each day, as if they should be upset. This seemed odd to me since the entire movie seemed to treat the issue with neutrality. I'm guessing it was a producer deciding to put a "socially relevant" stamp on the movie for fear that American audiences would be offended by the moral quandary that the movie otherwise presents.

Hard Times

I don't like boxing, and I don't like movies about boxing. But darn it, I liked this movie. The storyline, thankfully, is pretty flat. It doesn't show the rise and fall of a fighter, it does not dwell on the brutality or, conversely, the supposed beauty of a boxing match, people don't get beat into bloody pulps. Instead, the movie, set during the Depression or thereabouts, starts out with Bronson riding into town in a boxcar, finding an underground boxing circuit, and start boxing for money. The fights are exactly as tense as they need to be, no more and no less, although sometimes I wish it had been less because I was perpetually on the edge of my seat.

The story is simple and pretty realistic. There's a romance with Jill Ireland, but nothing too dramatic. It's a perfect Bronson film, and it follows the somewhat familiar Bronson-as-the-uncontested-hero pattern to its perfect and satisfying ending. There's a strange poetry to it, much the same way that there is beauty to "Chino" or "Death Wish" or "The Evil that Men Do". The reason we love Bronson is because he does not fail, and yet we are kept in agonising suspense at times because we're never sure if this is one of the movies that knows that Bronson cannot fail.

So whether or not you like boxing movies (and believe me, I hate them), you should see this movie.

Once Upon a Time in the West

I originally saw this film out of my devotion to Sergio Leone. All the right ingredients are present: a beautifully photographed landscape, an amazing Morricone score, great actors, some really great sequences, sentimentality for a fading way of life, and, to its detriment, the old familiar revenge plot line.

This is one time Sergio Leone probably should have abandoned some of his established traditions and come up with something unique, even if it was boring, because Bronson's character just does not work. You see where it's headed from the very beginning: you know right away that the man in the blurred flashback is Henry Fonda, you know right away that the kid is going to turn out to be Bronson, and you know right away that they are inevitably going to clash. But you think surely there's a twist, surely it can't be that obvious. But by the end of the movie, no, there is no catch, no twist. Everything is exactly as it had seemed, and in fact some things were even less interesting than you had thought. Claudia Cardinale's character amounts to nothing, and all the other characters were basically just decoration.

I re-watched this recently as a Bronson movie, hoping that maybe I had missed the point when I watched it as a Leone picture. It fairs a little bit better if you keep your focus on Bronson, because at least you are somewhat distracted by following only his progress through the story. It definitely helps to ignore, more or less, Cheyenne and Jill. And yet the story still is really weak, to the point that the beauty and pacing of the movie is wholly misplaced.

Whilst watching "Chino", the definitive Bronson western, I realised that it delivers far better that which "Once Upon a Time in the West" was seeking to achieve: a beautiful portrayal of the old West, a brooding and yet stoic Bronson, a simple and understated story, a portrait of the transitory nature of reality. So as much as I like Leone's Clint Eastwood series, I basically ignore this film as an unrealised attempt at what "Chino" actually achieved 6 years later.

Death Wish

I am listing the Death Wish films in the order that I rank them, rather than in order of release.

Death Wish 2

The second entry in the series is probably the best of the series, by a very narrow margin. I'm flexible on this and freely admit that it might be neck-and-neck with the original. The one thing that makes me think this is a little "better" to the original is the fact that Paul Kursey is, by this time, familiar with his role as a cold-blooded vigilante. There's no time acquainting him with guns, or getting used to killing bad guys. He's been there, he's done that, and in this movie it just takes a little provocation to get him back on the job.

This movie is about as disturbing as the first, possibly more-so, since this time it is Paul's traumatised daughter who is ravaged and killed. This movie really should not be seen by anyone, ever; sociologically speaking, it's sick. But artistically speaking, it's very much a perfect example of a cathartic anti-injustice experience. Paul Kursey is the judge, jury, and executioner, and there's never any question about him being right about who he decides to kill. He always gets the right guy, no one gets injured in the process of him delivering justice, and all punishment is decidedly absolute and final. And obviously you're going to enjoy that, if it's a sign of justice that you seek. It's not propagandic as much as it is pornographic, in the sense that it delivers violent, absolute, and unquestionable justice.

Films like these should be rated X, but it's not. View it with care, but if it's raw violence you are looking for, Bronson does a good job of delivering with his usual subtle and casual style. Also, the most disturbing scene of the film happens to be really well edited. You will know it when you see it.

Bonus points for an amazing synth score.

Death Wish

The original film, spawning five sequels that amazingly did not deteriorate in quality like you would expect. This movie, in terms of Bronson's career, continues on with his established persona of an emotionless, unrepentant killer. For the sake of character development, Bronson starts out as a regular guy who even abstained from combat or service of any kind in the Korean War. He is driven to being a cold-blooded killer by the injustices of America and by the bureaucratic stagnancy of its police force.

To get Bronson's character, Paul Kursey, to the level of Full-On Trained Assassin, the movie has to go pretty far in its sadism. The violence inflicted on innocent characters is pretty outrageous, and of course the added insult that the police start hunting Kursey down for delivering the justice that they cannot provide is designed to make the audience even angrier.

And it all works. This movie gets you angry at The System and makes you want to do something [violent] about it. You see Bronson kill people without any fanfare and not even a witty action-movie one-liner, and you like it. Is this pro-gun propaganda? or just food for thought? is it an insightful look at the failings of modern bureaucracy? or is it a revenge fantasy for anyone who has been attacked on the streets in real life? you decide!

If you're more in the business of not taking movies quite so seriously, then yes, this movie is a satisfyingly violent picture.

Death Wish 4

In this Death Wish film, Paul Kursey's lover's daughter dies of a self-inflicted but accidental drug overdose, driving him to hunt down and slaughter the drug dealers. After some plot twists and some set-ups, Kursey comes out on top, and the world is left with fewer drug kingpins.

In many ways, this is the easiest of the movies to take. There is no sexual violence, and all of the bad guys are drug dealers. Who doesn't want to see drug pushers blown to smithereens? The film aims for easy targets, and it's satisfying to watch. Compared to the previous films, this one feels clean and refreshing.

Death Wish 5

This one is Kursey versus The Mob, or really a mob, and it's set in the Fashion world in NYC. Kursey is living with an assumed name now and has a connection with the D.A. but naturally his girlfriend is attacked, so he has to go vigilante again.

Surprisingly, the film doesn't suffer from the usual mob movie cliches. In fact, the mob depicted here is a little sloppy, a little pitiful. It's not the super-cool mafia of all the other mobster films, and that's yet another way that Death Wish wins again and again: the bad guys aren't the super cool all-knowing one-step-ahead-of-the-hero bad guys. They're just a bunch of losers, and they get punished.

By now, you would expect this series to be out of steam but actually this movie does pretty well for itself. Sure, it's the same formula as ever, but it works. Bronson kills bad guys. He kills them dead.

Death Wish 3

By far the weakest in the series, this movie is set in some impossible 80s war zone in some American city. Gangs roam the street and cause all kinds of havoc, frequently climbing through people's windows to rob and terrorise them.

Paul Kursey defends the neighborhood until the gangs clear out, but it's all over-inflated and surreal. I think the Death Wish formula works better on a more personal level, where the viewer can identify and join in with the rage against a broken system. It doesn't work as well with an ensemble.

Luckily, they learned their lesson from this attempt, because all of the following movies in the series use the original formula.

Caboblanco

When I first saw the title of this movie, I thought it read "Casablanca" and fully expected a remake of the classic. It isn't, but the similarities in titles was obviously intentional, as the story is sort of a re-mix of "Casablanca". It's no where near as effective as Casablanca, but it's the same setup: isolated town with a bar that is inexplicably the gathering place of pretty much every major character in the story, corrupt officials, and a secret that everyone wants.

It's not the worst movie in the world and it does have some intrigue. As a Bronson movie, it's a little underwhelming, since Bronson is basically just a vaguely street-smart bar proprietor who does little more than serve drinks while not getting into trouble, and doing the obligatory Bogartian amount of work protecting the not-so innocent.

I think I would like the movie more if it had borrowed less from Casablanca. For instance, I very much like the simplistic trick Bronson's character plays at the end: it's a very non-cinematic real-life feeling trick. It feels so realistic that it's almost silly, but dang it, if you were in a similar situation and had to think of something fast, you'd have done the same thing. If the whole movie had been more like that, it probably would have been a real winner.

From Noon til Three

A western...comedy, I guess? This film started out really strong, and then revealed that the start was just a dream sequence.

OK, a little annoying but going forward, it gets strong again with a tense confrontation about a horse and an impending bank robbery. And then suddenly, out of the clear blue, the movie goes full-on comedic.

But just briefly. Then it's back to being a drama, this time as a sweet, charming romantic story with the ever-impending threat of a tragic ending, since there is still this bank robbery storyline looming out there. OK so maybe we're back on the right track.

And then again, completely out of the blue, the movie gets comedic again, and it stays comedic until it segues into, I think, social commentary about media hype and nostalgia. And by the end of the movie, it's gone in so many different directions that you don't even know whether you're supposed to care any more.

And in fact, you don't. Which is a pity, because the first half of the movie was spent skillfully winning you over in spite of a few quirks. I really like what I thought this movie was going to be, but it successfully made me dislike it by the end.

If I'd known the movie was going to end up a wacky comedy, I guess I might have enjoyed it more, although I wonder what I'd have thought of the first half since there was barely any comedy there. The combination of Jill Ireland and Bronson is golden; there's a lot to love here. But the over-all impact is confusing and pretty darned disappointing (severely so, given how great it pretended it was going to be).

The Evil that Men Do

This is sort of a "Missing" meets "Death Wish" movie and it is fantastic. It opens with a man known as "The Doctor" as he demonstrates to a South American regime how to properly torture a prisoner. It isn't the most brutal depiction of torture I've ever seen, and I'm OK with that, but it makes its point and assures the viewer that the Doctor must be assassinated for his sadistic crimes.

Bronson, retired on a Caribbean island, is recruited to go in to the country, find the Doctor, and deliver justice via the sawed-off barrel of a shotgun.

That really ought to be enough to make you want to see the film, and you should. It's classic Bronson, with a few good twists here and there to keep things interesting. Enjoy.

Someone Behind the Door

This is a neat little movie filmed in France about a neurosurgeon who meets a drifter with amnesia. The surgeon takes the amnesiac in, convinces him that he is married and that his wife is having an affair with someone, and that he should take action. Of course the surgeon is doing all of this because actually it is his wife that is having an affair, but he lacks the ability to do anything about it himself.

The cast is interesting: Anthony Perkins as the surgeon, Bronson as the amnesiac, and Jill Ireland as the wife. For their performances, the movie is worth watching, but the plot, I have to admit, takes more suspension of disbelief than I had anticipated. There's a moment in the film when I feel like I needed a little more selling to believe that the amnesiac would take all of these events close enough to heart to actually act upon them, to actually kill someone over affair that he doesn't remember with a wife he doesn't recognise.

Bronson plays the role as simple and naive as he can, and that does help, but it's still a big leap. One sequence in the movie uses flashbacks from an earlier event that had previously only been hinted at, and the amnesiac clearly associates these flashbacks with the current situation; that worked. It worked really well, but there wasn't enough of it to make me really feel that the amnesiac was honestly confusing those events with what was happening in the present.

It's worth seeing, but I would not say it was always a great film throughout. It definitely is one of those almost-great films a film student should see, to take notes from.

White Buffalo

An interesting western that is quite good as long as you can get past a few initial fumbles around its titular character. The white buffalo in question serves as a catalyst for some really beautiful relationships and character growth, but as a "jaws"-like nemesis, it is a failure. I do not believe that the original script probably had it appear until the very end, and it was probably either a producer or editor that inserted the buffalo early on as if to build up anticipation.

The movie isn't about the white buffalo. It's about Wild Bill Hickok and a few of the famous people and events surrounding his legend. It's really intriguing that way, and because this portrays Hickok as a man who is growing weary of his own notoriety, it is beautiful and sad just as often. The character progression is spot-on throughout; this is a truly great character study, marketed poorly and, I suspect, re-edited some to spice things up for no good reason. The soundtrack is nothing special, either; I wish they'd used Morricone or Vangelis, or just left off the soundtrack so the viewer could just put on their own.

The point is, this is a great film and you should see it.

Director Terence Young made some films with Charles Bronson as the lead. I do not know how or why they came to be a team, but it is mostly a good combination.

Farewell, Friend

Nobody can make heist films like the French. This is one of those stylish, brash, almost Nouvelle Vague in feel, robbery films that you just don't see any more, and never really saw out of Hollywood. Bronson is a mercenary and con man and he befriends a fellow ex-French Legionnaire mostly because he seems convinced that there is some kind of scam around the corner. Turns out he's right, and the next 90 minutes of the film deals with the perfectly paced execution of a twisty turny and engaging story. And a really great soundtrack.

Bronson's character is once again pretty unique to a lot of the other parts he has played. That's something about Bronson: he doesn't always just play Bronson. He actually acts, and the characters he plays are not all the same. I mention this simply because you might dismiss him as just-another-action star if you don't actually watch his movies.

This is a great movie, and a great example of how France's film scene was so unique and strong. Definitely give this one a watch.

Red Sun

Cowboys and samurai. A really unique western picture, with Bronson playing an outlaw who we happen to be rooting for. Obstacles include double-crosses, the Comanche, bandits, samurai, and lots more. A really good film, definitely worth watching as a western and, particularly, a European western the best kind).

The Valachi Papers

There isn't a genre of film I hate more than a mob story. This is basically the same as all the rest; same characters, same epic plot told through flashbacks, same force-fed bittersweet tripe about the beautiful-yet-savage world of the mob. I'll never understand the appeal of over-long romanticised movies about a group of self-serving low-life criminals with fancy Italian names. Big deal, the mafia ain't what it used to be. Get over it. And besides, what were they even doing aside from screwing people over? Why do I care that the mafia is past its golden age?

That aside, this movie is as good as all the others and, frankly I'd much rather watch this one than any of the pompous Godfather films or the oh-so hip Goodfellas. At least this one is humble and doesn't assume that you must automatically love the mafia. And Bronson is particularly good in this. He is completely unique in this role, playing an Italian who is a little naive, but smart and capable. He gets mixed up in the mob, and the story goes on you would expect. Really good performance, but as a whole, this is not a movie I need to see again.

Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects

Bronson is a bitter cop up against a prostitution ring. This is pretty standard stuff all around: standard all-purpose cop story with just what you would expect from Bronson.

I like the variation on the theme that we see in this movie: Bronson is disgusted with the scum he has to deal with all day, he goes against orders, he has a family that does not get killed, he is brutal and capable. In other words, this isn't Paul Kursey as a policeman, this is someone unique. There are some plot twists and some interesting moral dilemmas in the film; a man who drunkenly molests a young girl on a subway later suffers his own daughter being kidnapped. One of the girls that the cops "save" from her life of prostitution resents them for spoiling what was a good gig for her.

It's a fairly mature look at the topics at hand, more or less. The opening is pretty silly, admittedly. Aside from that, it's a good-enough Bronson film.

Cold Sweat

This is an excellent suspense/thriller in which some unsavoury people from a man's past come back to ask for a ride on his boat to make a drug pickup and a subsequent escape out of country. To encourage him to help them, they hold him, his wife, and his step-daughter hostage. So, you have a kind of Cul-de-Sac [Polanski] situation and mood, with a fair bit more action and intrigue. And the best thing is, the balance of power just does not stop shifting through the entire film. The title is utterly appropriate!

And if you're keeping score, then you should know that this probably, in my mind, has the most quintessential Bronson moment of any movie. This will be a minor spoiler but not really: after the upper-hand has shifted non-stop for the entire film, Bronson is being escorted out to a car by a henchman so that he can drive the villain somewhere. As he gets into the car, Bronson uses the car door to knock the gun out of the villain's hand, grabs it, and then they get into the car; the power has shifted again, yes? Well, no, because Bronson gives the loaded gun back to the villain once they start rolling, saying that he needs both hands to drive.

Bronson is right on the edge between being an action hero and being just being a regular bloke trying to keep his family safe. It's a brilliant performance by everyone involved and the style of film making is flat and simple, but completely effective. There really isn't anything to possibly criticise about this film, it's just one of those perfect movies. You should see it.

More?

Have I missed any, or have I missed the point of some of these fine films? Let me know in the comments!

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