In the late 1980’s, into the early 1990’s, two of the biggest film producers and distributors were Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, and their company was Cannon Films. Cannon were routinely low budget exploitation affairs, generally with actors past their prime but still with an audience. Most films featured these actors doing particularly nasty and violent things. Amongst their output were several Chuck Norris films Delta Force 1 & 2, Missing In Action 1, 2 & 3, Invasion U.S.A.; and the Charles Bronson vehicles Death Wish 4 & 5, The Evil That Men Do, Murphy’s Law and The Messenger Of Death. Those familiar with any of those titles will know what I mean.
Assassination is one of Cannon’s better productions. This is probably due to the assured direction of Peter Hunt, who had directed On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and had previously worked with Bronson on the klondike manhunt thriller Death Hunt. Having said that it is one of the better Cannon productions doesn’t mean it is a great film though. At best, (and rather forgivingly) it can be described as half decent entertainment.
The film opens on inauguration day. A new U.S. President is about to be sworn in. Secret Service Agent Jay Killian (Charles Bronson) returns to duty after six weeks off on sick leave. He wants to be assigned to protect the President, but luck isn’t on his side. He is assigned to protect The First Lady, Lara Royce Craig (Jill Ireland – Bronson’s wife at the time). The Secret Service have an irritating habit of referring to her as ‘One Mama’. Doesn’t it make you cringe, just reading it?
As Mrs. Craig prepares for the motorcade to the inauguration, Killian outlines the protection mechanism’s the Secret Service have in place for her. “I won’t be coerced by your chauvinistic rules,” she says. And then she gets into an open top car, which she chose for the journey. Killian warns against it. He says they haven’t used open top vehicles since the Kennedy assassination in 1963. In a hostile fashion she rebukes his advice.
As the motorcade winds it’s way through the streets, Mrs. Craig chooses to sit up high on the back seat, rather down in the car. Killian warns her that it is a security risk. Again she ignores him. A policeman on a motorcycle weaves through the security cordon and approaches the car. An explosive charge emanates from his foot peddle and he looses control. The bike crashes and then goes up in a ball of flames. The officer, rather suspiciously disappears into the crowd. In the First Lady’s car, Killian has pulled Mrs. Craig down and into the car, just in the nick of time. Unfortunately her eye has connected with his knee. She doesn’t realise the gravity of the situation and believes Killian is simply being over zealous. She kicks him out of the car. He now has to run along side, which for a man of Bronson’s age seems quite a chore (at the time of this film Bronson was in his mid sixties). The Presidential swearing in ceremony takes place without further incident.
In the aftermath of the motorcade, Killian is given a stripping down. But he believes the motorcycle incident was not just an accident, but a premeditated attack on the First Lady. And from the quick glimpse he got of the suspect, he thinks that American terrorist, Reno Bracken (Erik Stern) was posing as the police officer.
Next it is off to a press conference for the First Lady. She acquits her self well in her first official duty, but a subversive reporter Derek Finny (Robert Axelrod) asks a few too many personal questions about the President and First Ladies sex life (apparently it is non-existent). Killian and another Secret Service Agent, Tyler Loudermilk (Randy Brooks), who is younger and more physical than Killian, scare off the nosey reporter.
Causing more trouble, Mrs. Craig leaves the Whitehouse without permission and a security escort. The Secret Service are in a flap. Luckily she is stopped at the airport and Killian and agent Charlotte (Charlie) Chong (played by Jan Gan Boyd) are sent to accompany her on the journey. They take a private plane to California.
In California, Mrs. Craig wants to go sailing on Daddy’s yacht, but it is currently in dry dock. She doesn’t care. She bullies the captain into getting it ready. Working on the boat are some shady characters, including Pritchard Young, the number two man for Reno Bracken. He attaches some plastic explosive to the hull.
The yacht is almost ready to go. Mrs. Craig, Killian and Chong wait in the boathouse as the yacht sails past to be refuelled. Naturally it explodes and all the windows in the boathouse shatter. But the First Lady is safe. Killian orders her back to Washington. She is reluctant. She believes it is another accident.
Back in Washington, Killian and Chong are off duty. Chong convinces Killian to come back home with her. The age difference here is staggering – I would guess forty years. Anyway, Killian agrees. But folks, this is a Charles Bronson movie. We all know what happens to minor characters he gets attached to. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
While Killian and Chong are enjoying their evening, Agent Loudermilk is working. Analysis on the exploded yacht reveals that C4 explosive was used in the assault. It appears that Killian isn’t paranoid after all. And it seems the conspiracy goes even deeper than expected. Loudermilk has found a listening device in his telephone.
Despite the danger she is in, Mrs. Craig refuses to allow Killian to protect her. The man sent to do her dirty work is Presidential Advisor and Chief of Staff, Senator Bunsen (Michael Ansara). Killian tells Bunsen that he thinks someone is trying to assassinate Mrs. Craig. Bunsen believes him and agrees to talk to the President about her security. But Bunsen still has to suspend Killian from duty.
Killian’s suspension doesn’t last long. He is called into work the next day. There has been an incident overnight. To protect the Whitehouse, on top of the old Executive Building is an installation with rockets designed to intercept (shoot down) intruders into the airspace. It seems that two sentries at the installation, were disabled with tazers and the rockets stolen. Reno Bracken is the chief suspect. To make matters worse the First Lady intends to give a speech to an assembly of university students. Her journey to Lexington, Virginia includes a section of 200 miles across open country. At any point she could be targeted. Killian contrives a scheme where Mrs. Craig makes the start of the journey by chopper. Then it discreetly sets down in a paddock, where she is transferred into a car. She is not happy about the interruption to her schedule. And even less amused to see Killian when she alights from the chopper.
The chopper continues it’s journey. As it passes over a barn, Reno Bracken armed with a rocket launcher takes aim and fires. The rocket misses. Killian is ready for the attack and his team storm the barnyard on dirt bikes. More rockets are fired and the barn is blown to smithereens, but Bracken still gets away.
Back in Washington, Killian approaches Bunsen once more. But this time Bunsen is not so receptive. He insists that Killian is actually the target of the terrorists and not Mrs. Craig. Bunsen is either stupid or corrupt – as he is played by Michael Ansara, an actor who has made a career out of playing villains, it is not hard to work out which.
Remember Finney, the nosey reporter that asked the personal question about the Presidential sex life? Well he turns up dead, with his body rigged to a large amount of explosive. It appears that someone didn’t like what he had to say.
Killian and Chong are now assigned to watch the First Lady’s sister, Polly. They follow her to the National Museum of Natural History, where her sister is donating her inaugural ball gown. Agent Chong goes inside and Killian stays in the car. Polly leaves early and gets into a car, but there is something different about her hair. Killian follows. She is also followed in a police van by the terrorist Pritchard Young.
Obviously the difference in hair is because Polly is now the First Lady in disguise. She is scared and on the run. And furthering the contrivance, she deliberately had Killian assigned to protect her sister, because she knew he’d be following and that’s what she wanted. In a dramatic turn around, it seems that she now trusts Killian and wants him to protect her.
The two of them continue their journey together. Their first stop at night is a hotel where they pose as man and wife (not very seemly for the First Lady?) It is not long before Young turns up at the hotel, and in his guise as a police officer he finds their room. Young enters the room with a blazing machine gun. Killian is ready and waiting and kills Young.
The following day they ditch the car, and travel on a bus to Kokomo, Indiana. Next they buy dirt bikes and keep travelling. Killian’s reasoning is that the terrorists wouldn’t be looking for them on motorbikes. At the next hotel, Mrs. Craig explains that her marriage to the President is a marriage of convenience. It was simply to get him into power. It was agreed that once he was in the Whitehouse, she could either go along for the ride or get a discreet divorce. Killian reasons that is why they are trying to kill her. If she gets a divorce the President would not get re-elected. But as a widower, he would get a sympathy vote and be a shoe-in at the next election.
Next day, they are out of town, back on the motorcycles, when a utility vehicle starts chasing them. The driver is brandishing a machine gun. Killian and Mrs. Craig take the bikes off road and follow a railroad track. The utility follows behind, along the railroad tracks. No prizes for guessing that a train is coming in the opposite direction. The utility is forced off the tracks and into a riverbed, where it explodes in a colourful ball of flame (which we see repeated from multiple angles).
At this point, Killian asks the question that all viewers have ticking in their heads, “How could they have possibly found us?” No answer. The story moves on. They ditch the bikes and board a train. Later the train is stopped. Bracken and another minion land in a helicopter and search the train. Killian hides himself and Mrs, Craig outside, between carriages, up on the couplings. This is successful and Bracken moves on.
Again Killian asks, “How did they know you were on the train?” The First Lady says she has been phoning her husband because she trusts him.
Next they hitch-hike. They are picked up by Indian Joe, a used car salesman. Back at his lot he sells them a dune buggy. The couple make their way to Mrs. Craig’s father’s home on Lake Tahoe. Mr H.H. Royce (William Prince) is happy to greet them. Meanwhile, Killian has arranged for agents Chong and Loudermilk to join them there.
On the lake, behind the cover of an old stern wheeler, Bracken approaches on jet-ski, with one hand steering an unmanned boat laden with plastic explosive. Once he is close enough, he releases the boat and it powers towards the Royce lakehouse. Killian’s team scramble and start firing. A shot takes out the outboard motor on the speedboat and the explosive is dead on the water. Killian leaps into another speedboat and takes off after Bracken. Bracken slides his jetski ashore, and Killian follows, riding his boat up onto the bank. Amongst the trees a gun battle is played out, until Killian runs out of bullets and appears to be shot. He is lying on the ground, when Bracken approaches with gun poised ready to fire.
And in the tradition of all good cliff hangers I will leave the synopsis there. All the threads come together satisfactorily at the end, but if you care how, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out.
Bronson is often accused of being lazy in this film, but I think he is rather relaxed. He even breaks into a smile a few times and is probably very comfortable working with his wife. (She had co-starred in quite a few of Bronson’s films in the seventies, but it had been quite a while since the two of them had appeared together). So of the other performances aren’t quite as good, in particular Jan Gan Boyd, whose performance is sub par.
As I mentioned at the start, that Cannon films tend to be violent affairs and often they leave a bad taste after viewing, but Assassination isn’t as gruesome as many of their productions. And here is a spoiler, but without giving the ending away, I am going back to what I said about Charlotte Chong earlier. Remember I mentioned that she was going to ‘buy it’ because she fell in love with Bronson’s character. I am pleased to say, I am wrong. She lives. This is the strongest example I can give that this isn’t like many other of Bronson’s late cycle films. It doesn’t leer at violence and death – and thankfully the film-makers seem to know the difference between action and violence.
By no means is this a classic – but I somehow feel that it is better than it should be.