Charles Bronson had almost no business being an action star in the 1980s. That’s precisely why he’s one of the best.
There are at least two distinct periods during the actor’s remarkable career, and the one I’m unsurprisingly going to be focusing on in this piece is the ’80s/Cannon era, AKA the era where they didn’t bother putting a first name on the poster.
At this point, Bronson was in his sixties, and it seems like the only producers who would have been crazy enough to cast him as an action hero were Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, of the Cannon Group, producers of such cult classics as The Delta Force, Enter the Ninja, and Missing in Action.
But earlier in his career, Bronson had of course proven himself worthy of the genre. He has a small role in The Magnificent Seven as well as a very memorable role in The Great Escape.
For the ’50s and ’60s, he was in incredibly good shape. I don’t think we’d look at him today and marvel at his muscles, but I think there’s an argument that he was sort of a for-the-sixties version of Stallone or Schwarzenegger.
But as middle age hit him hard, a little movie came along that would define his career going forward: Michael Winner’s Death Wish.
Death Wish is a pretty interesting movie for a number of reasons. If you’re a fan of gritty ’70s urban dramas like Shaft and Taxi Driver, it’s right up your alley. Mostly, however, I think of it as exploitation with just a touch of Cannes. I think the horror equivalent would be Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. It may not be as good as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (and likewise, Death Wish is no Dirty Harry), but you still feel like these movies have something to say.
So how did Charles Bronson move from relatively socially conscious (while also being more than a little regressive), brutal, disturbing action movies to all-out ’80s schlock?
Since Bronson had his time in the sun, we’ve seen other actors in the older action star mold reinvent their careers when the aging process necessitated it. You have your Expendables-type revival films, banking purely on nostalgia with an actor doing more or less the same kinds of things he did in the ’80s or ’90s. You also have Liam Neeson, of course, who reinvented himself as an action star in his mid-fifties with Taken. And even more recently, we have Bob Odenkirk and Christopher Lloyd – defying not only age, but their comedic backgrounds – with Nobody. There are a few key differences here with Bronson, however. The first is most of these guys – Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, etc. – were far bigger stars in their prime than Bronson ever was. And while Bronson is in a number of classics, he never had a lead role in a movie as big or as critically acclaimed as a Rocky, Schindler’s List, Die Hard, or The Terminator. To be fair, he’s arguably the lead in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, but seeing as how it was a spaghetti western with a niche audience, it didn’t get its rightful due as one of the greatest movies ever made until far later.
The other difference with Bronson as opposed to a Stallone or a Willis is those guys still seem to be in pretty good shape, even in their old age. If Bronson was in good shape when he was making his Cannon films, you couldn’t tell. Sure, he’s not taking his shirt off a lot like he was in the days of The Great Escape, but it almost seems like he can barely run in these movies.
This is a significant part of the appeal of Charles Bronson as a leading man. He reminds me of the joke people always make about slasher movies, how Jason or Michael are always walking after their running victims, only to catch up with them through editing and movie magic. That’s Bronson, when you see him running after far younger and faster people.
Another significant aspect of Bronson’s appeal were his looks. While he was obviously too old for these kinds of roles when he was getting them, I think even when he was younger Bronson was never particularly good looking. This isn’t to say he’s ever been unattractive, though. He’s quite possibly the most masculine looking person who’s ever lived. Bronson looks like the living embodiment of beef jerky – nothing but rugged masculinity on display – and his stoicism enhances this.
However I think the biggest appeal of Bronson as an action star is his unpredictability. He often seems kind of bored with his movies (something he’s got in common with latter-day Bruce Willis), but he always has this kind of this-guy-could-snap-at-any-second-and-just-murder-everyone-in-the-room energy. It’s an aura that might be better depicted by Eastwood in Dirty Harry and some of its sequels, or by Michael Caine in Get Carter, but Bronson’s dead eyed stare stands up there with the best of them.
Compare Bronson for a moment with his younger ’80s peers, and their personas. Is there ever really a doubt that Indiana Jones is going to do the right thing? It’s not like he’s Christopher Reeve’s Superman exactly, but he’s pretty much the archetypal adventure hero, with no real edge to the character. Look at Schwarzenegger in Commando, which is a Cannon film in all but budget. Arnold might kill someone early who he promised to kill later, but it’ll be done as a bit of comedy. And the opening scene of Commando sets Arnold up as this loving, devoted father, almost to a comical degree.
Bronson – by all accounts a loving and devoted family man off-screen – doesn’t have the on-screen persona of a loving father. He’s the kind of father who would call his daughter a whore if she wears a dress that he thinks is a bit too short, and would threaten to beat up or kill her boyfriend.
That’s the kind of edge that can make for a really interesting film if the movie is trying to say something, like with the case of Dirty Harry or even the first Death Wish. But in the ’80s, in films made and distributed by exploitation filmmakers such as Golan and Globus, and when Bronson’s far too old for this kind of shit, it’s just shamelessly entertaining. The complexities of his persona’s moral gray areas are washed away by the movies themselves, and Bronson becomes a superhero who can shoot anybody without any consequences (Death Wish 3 literally has the police making a deal with him to allow him to kill as many criminals as he wants).
It’s almost the Platonic ideal of an action movie. These movies are never more artistic than they need to be, and sure, there might be far better ones, but are there any movies that are more action than movies like Murphy’s Law or Death Wish 3?
Cannon fell in love with Bronson in the ’80s and I am eternally grateful that they did. Cannon was always trying to imitate the bigger studios, and with a massive focus on landing starts to help legitimize their opperation. Since they were Cannon though, they could mostly get only washed up or over the hill ones (like Franco Nero in Enter the Ninja, a full 15 years after the spaghetti western classic Django). However they struck gold with Bronson. He appeared in countless Cannon films, from 10 to Midnight, to Murphy’s Law, and numerous Death Wish sequels for the company, as well as so many others. If he wasn’t a cop, he was a vigilante, and there was a better than decent chance he’d fire a rocket launcher at some point, and a virtual guarantee that he’d look incredibly bored while firing a gun at people far younger than him.
I’m not saying Bronson paved the way for Liam Neeson in the Taken movies; or Bob Odenkirk in Nobody; or Stephen Lang, William Sadler, and Fred Williamson in last year’s spectacular VFW. He does however share a common thread of DNA with these folks. Even if these other movies didn’t exist, however, Bronson’s power would still remain as one of the most compelling forces in all of action cinema – a man who flourished both despite and due to his films’ lack of artistic ambition. Its action cinema trimmed of all the fat, just the way he liked it.
Thank you for this great article about one of my favorite action heroes. It is interesting how you disected Bronson’s character and acting skills.