Charles Bronson was a film star, kind of - renowned around the world after Death Wish and yet pretty much every one of his films from that point onwards was increasingly awful and formulaic. He was famous for his monosyllabic face of granite, though as he aged, the rock face increasingly turned into a scowling piece of grey marshmallow. His face may have softened, but his ruthless dealing out of hot lead justice never slowed down, even as increasing infirmity struck at his body and mind.
Was Charles Bronson a good actor? - well he never seemed to do much, but then he was never required to do very much. In the occasional film he might allow the odd yelp, maybe even tear, to register the death of his family or rape of his daughter, but once he’d been given his motivation he got on with what the public wanted to see, brutal vengeance.
Bronson’s early films have titles that pretty much speak for themselves, When Hell Broke Lose, Showdown at Boot Hill, Riding Shotgun - you get the gist. Films that promised much with their lurid poster art and grisly taglines, but seldom rewarded the viewer with more than the odd B movie thrill. Roger Corman, the man who seems to have given every Hollywood Bigshot their first big break (including Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, and let’s not forget Robert De Niro in Bloody Mama) and taught them how to make a movie in three days with a backlot and a bunch of stock footage, rewarded Bronson with a starring role in Machine Gun Kelly ('Without his gun he was naked yellow').
He hit paydirt with The Magnificent Seven, directed by John Sturges, who then went on to direct The Great Escape, with Bronson as a man who loved to tunnel, but also was a touch on the claustrophobic (probably the craziest freak out Bronson ever put on celluloid). He might have been mainly rigid in both of those, but at least he wasn't a great big scene stealing preener like the hugely overrated Steve McQueen ('Oh look at me playing with my hat... oh look at me playing with my baseball' YAWN). Bronson also had a near starring role in The Dirty Dozen, in which a bunch of rapists and murderers get trained to go mental at the Nazis and in the marvelous Sergio Leone classic Once Upon A Time In The West (how can Mr Nice Guy Henry Fonda turn so nasty?).
Bronson then got Loinclothed up for his first Michael Winner film, Chato’s Land, where he gets justifiably worked into a lather and kills people in the west. That led onto The Mechanic with Airwolf’s Jan Michael Vincent and then the film that shot him onto the stratosphere, Death Wish.
Death Wish may have made him bankable and pushed his wages way up, but it also led to a parade of increasingly dull films, many helmed by J Lee Thompson, director of Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear, but sadly his later films were less notable.
Did Bronson get offered anything more interesting than the supposedly moral but bloodlusting avenger? Was he a man who knew his limitations? Did he privately laugh at the terrible tatty movies he made in the eighties whilst looking at his bank balance?
In the eighties Bronson became wedded to the Cannon film group, run by Golan and Globus, who, riding high on the Lemon Popsicle series of Israeli Sex Comedies (for many teenage boys their first vicarious thrill of what a 13 year old thinks of as pornography) tried to takeover the film industry - buying up hundreds of cinemas and filling them with Chuck Norris. The fruitful collaboration led to Messenger of Death, Death Wish 4 and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects. Sadly, I have not seen Kinjite, but it is about a Japanese businessman who molests a vice cop’s daughter (Yup, the cop is Bronson) and then the Vice cop is put in charge of finding the Japanese businessman’s missing daughter - a moral minefield, but I'm sure it was dealt with the taste and depravity one would expect from Cannon, Bronson and J Lee Thompson. In his last few years Bronson slowed down, with just a Death Wish 5 and a trilogy of Family of Cops to his name. The final in the series of family of Cops sadly shows a man who may well be in the early throws of Alzheimer’s.
Not exactly a great actor, an Eastwood for people who prefer a little less emotion from their hard nosed cop, Bronson is never the less a peculiar icon of the seventies and a man who decided he knew his place, and that place was shooting evil motherfuckers in the face.