As a stoic action hero who rarely stoops to showing emotion, Jason Statham has on occasion been compared to the late, great Charles Bronson, never more so than this weekend with the remake of ‘The Mechanic’ opening in wide release.
Statham displays his usual tough-yet-charming demeanor in the filmas an experienced hitman who takes on a young charge and teaches him the tricks of the trade. In the 1972 original, Bronson tutored Jan-Michael Vincent. While the characters and general outline of the two films are similar, a comparison shows that Bronson and Statham are very different actors. And a brief review of Bronson’s career, which stretched out over 40 years, reveals that he played a much greater variety of roles, with much greater success, than simply stone-faced killers.
One important distinction is that by the time Bronson starred in ‘The Mechanic,’ he was already 50 years of age. (He actually turned 51 shortly after the film was released; Statham is 39.) He’d been a working actor for 20 years, but he started late, years after he worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines as a teenager in the 1930s and then served in World War II. For a long time it seemed that he might never achieve stardom.
He played small parts in films and on television, changing his stage name from Buchinsky to Bronson in 1953, before snaring the title role in Roger Corman’s ‘Machine-Gun Kelly.’
Six months later he grabbed another lead in ‘When Hell Broke Loose’ (pictured at top of article), a World War II picture that featured Bronson as Steve Boland, an apathetic bookie compelled into military service. The film, which is available via Netflix Watch Instantly, follows Boland as he schemes his way through the war, avoiding the action as best he can, until the love of a good German woman changes his tune. He’s a scoundrel, but a charming one, and it’s fun to watch Bronson at the age of 36, dispensing wisecracks and showing his vulnerable, romantic side before finally springing into heroic action.
Around the same time, Bronson also began appearing on television as ‘Man with a Camera,’ a series that lasted two seasons. Bronson played a former combat cameraman turned freelance photographer in Manhattan. A few months after the show ended its run in February 1960, Bronson rose to greater visibility as Bernardo, a good-hearted gunfighter in John Sturges’ ‘The Magnificent Seven’ who takes a paternal interest in the children of the village he is hired to protect.
He again played a father figure in ‘Kid Galahad’ (1962), training Elvis Presley as a boxer for promoter Gig Young. In the film, which is also available via Netflix Watch Instantly, Bronson is protective of the kid, trying to bring him along slowly. He becomes a loyal, steadfast friend, an iron man of integrity. Bronson’s performance doesn’t deflect attention from Presley or the other, higher-billed stars; you just wish you could see more of him.
Bronson teamed again with director Sturges, Steve McQueen and James Coburn in 1963’s ‘The Great Escape,’ playing Danny the tunnel king, the cool-headed digger who finally succumbs to his claustrophobia in the scene below.
Danny’s breakdown surprises the men, who really don’t have time to deal with it since they’re in the midst of a long-planned escape. And Bronson plays it just right, the tough guy who doesn’t want to admit his own weakness. Adding to the poignancy of the scene is the report that Bronson had claustrophobia himself, based on his years working in coal mines.
Bronson scored again with key roles in Robert Aldrich’s ‘The Dirty Dozen’ and Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ a few years later. Supposedly, Leone had wanted Bronson to play The Man With No Name in ‘A Fistful of Dollars,’ the role that started Clint Eastwood on the road to international stardom.
As a man dubbed “Harmonica,” Bronson embodied a similar type; he was “the good guy,” in opposition to the pure evil of Henry Fonda’s cold-blooded killer. Harmonica, a quiet, soft-spoken man, had no qualms abut killing, but it was always in defense of himself or others. You could see the threat in his eyes, as in this excerpt from the opening sequence of the movie.
Bronson became a full-blown star in Europe, appearing in a flurry of pictures, including ‘Rider on the Rain,’ ‘The Family,’ ‘Cold Sweat,’ ‘Red Sun,’ ‘The Valachi Papers,’ ‘Chato’s Land,’ and then ‘The Mechanic,’ followed by ‘Chino,’ The Stone Killer,’ and ‘Mr. Majestyk.’ These were all, to my memory, solid, sturdy films; Bronson played variations on his tough guy persona with verve and his own flair.
He was never someone who submerged himself into the role, so that you forgot you were watching Charles Bronson. But that’s what also made him a star: he had his own personality, the man who would rather downplay his own emotions rather than make a big deal about them.
Here’s an example from ‘The Mechanic,’ in which offers Jan-Michael Vincent some unusual training.
It’s not that he was completely without feelings, some kind of robot; it was that he kept things under control. He handled the situation, instead of allowing the situation to dictate what he had to do.
When ‘Death Wish’ came along in 1974, it was simply the latest tough guy role in a string of tough guy roles, even though today it’s probably the one that’s most associated with him. The theme of someone taking the law into his own hands had been explored many times before. But in the summer of 1974, the idea of a citizen fighting back against criminals struck a nerve, and Bronson’s character, architect Paul Kersey, was viewed as a hero by many.
Our own Jacob Hall recently viewed the film for the first time, and commented that Bronson “doesn’t look like a movie star … he looks like a weirdo who’d break your jaw if you looked at him funny.” He also described his feeling that “it’s impossible to buy Bronson as a liberal family man, [though] he remains unmatched as a silent, icy killer.”
Why do some feel that it’s “impossible” to believe that Bronson could be a liberal family man? To some extent, it may just be unfamiliarity with the full range of the man’s back catalog. In the years immediately after ‘Death Wish,’ for example, Bronson could be seen as a pilot in the entertaining prison picture ‘Breakout’ (with Robert Duvall), as a brutal street fighter in the very good ‘Hard Times’ (the directorial debut of the talented Walter Hill), as a prisoner investigating a crime in the Western ‘Breakheart Pass’ (with Richard Crenna), as a writer investigating a murder in the classy, if improbable, mystery ‘St. Ives,’ and as a romantic bank robber in ‘From Noon Til Three.’
In none of those did he play a hardened killer. In all of them he gave solid performances. Were they worthy of Academy Award consideration? No. But neither did they leave audiences feeling cheated.
Admittedly, Bronson eventually did fall into a much more limited pattern of roles. Whether that was because it’s all that was offered to him, or because he wanted to keep to the tried and true formulas, it’s difficult to say from this vantage point. Age was becoming a factor as well. By the early 80s, Bronson was turning 60, and the decade was fated for domination by younger action stars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Bronson gave spirited performances opposite his old ‘Dirty Dozen’ commander Lee Marvin in 1981’s ‘Death Hunt’ and anchored the unwieldy, fascinating ’10 to Midnight,’ which remains a personal favorite despite all its missteps. (See more from our own Alison Nastasi.) His heart didn’t seem to be in the ‘Death Wish’ sequels, which began in 1982 and continued for another dozen years, and his other work in the 80s is undistinguished.
Sean Penn, happily, gave Bronson a chance to show his quiet dignity in ‘The Indian Runner,’ as in this brief scene.
He ended up back on television in the 90s, in the ‘Family of Cops’ series. He passed away on August 20, 2003, at the end of 81.
Perhaps because most of us were introduced to him later in life, Bronson always seemed to be of an older generation than the films in which he appeared. If he was born 20 years earlier, he could have risen through the ranks as a contract player. Maybe he would have been a tough guy in Warner Brothers’ crime movies of the 30s, or an eternal supporting character in MGM productions, like so many other actors of Eastern European descent.
But I like to think that he would have risen near the top of his profession, no matter what era in which he was born. Given the opportunity, he was fully capable of displaying an entire range of emotion, of being a romantic, vulnerable, petrified, stalwart, dependable, friendly, engaging, cheerful, stoic champion of a loser.
In short, I don’t care what he looked like: Charles Bronson was beautiful.