I consider myself a pretty big Charles Bronson fan. I even don’t mind some of the violent dross he made in the 1980s as his career was petering out. I think it takes a dedicated fan to appreciate The Evil That Men Do, Murphy’s Law, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects, and The Messenger of Death. Or the, however many, unnecessary sequels to Death Wish. I think my tolerance of this garbage comes from the fact that I just like watching him act. Some people may say that Bronson wasn’t much of an actor. I disagree. He simply belongs to, or portrayed, a different era. A time when men didn’t say much. They just did what they had to do. Okay, most men don’t have to hunt down psychopaths and then blow them away, but the attitude of going to work and doing your job, despite the odds stacked against you, is an old fashioned work ethic. And I think that can be seen in Bronson’s performances, and that’s why he was best playing strong silent types. Notice how his character, Danny, in The Great Escape was ‘The Tunnel King’. He was a worker, not one of the organisers or planners. He just got on with it, and did his job.
Over Bronson’s long career of playing strong silent types, I think one of his best turns was in Walter Hill’s Hard Times. In it, Bronson plays a drifter in the great depression, named Chaney. At the beginning of the film, he blows into New Orleans on a freight train, and stumbles upon a bare knuckle fistfight. A crowd has gathered round and are gambling on the outcome. Chaney watches with interest.
Small time hustler, Spencer “Speed” Weed (James Coburn) has a fighter in the scrap, but his man goes down and Speed loses his money. This appears to be a regular occurrence, but unflappable and unperturbed, Speed adjourns to a diner for a meal.
Later, Chaney approaches Speed and asks for a shot as a fighter. Speed is sceptical, but still arranges a fight. Everybody jeers and taunts Chaney because he is so old – Bronson was 48 years old when he made the film. However, Chaney quickly silences his critics when he knocks out the opposition fighter with just one punch. The thing here, is that Bronson is completely believable – I mean, never for instant do you doubt that he could take a man out with just one punch.
Speed sees a meal ticket with Chaney, and the two men enter into and an uneasy alliance. Speed is to put up the cash and arrange the fights, and Chaney is to take on all comers and knock them down. And although this film is about bare knuckle fights, it doesn’t play out like a two-dimensional video game. There’s a story with flesh and blood characters. Flawed human beings, yes, but none-the-less still a pleasure to watch.
This film was a video classic when I was a kid. My friends and I would hire it out repeatedly. In Australia it was known as The Street Fighter, which was allegedly the film’s original title. However, it was changed in the United States to avoid confusion with Sonny Chiba’s The Street Fighter which had just been released. The fight scene that we loved as kids was not climatic fight scene with Nick Dimitri – although that was pretty good – but the cage fight against Jim Henry, played by Robert Tessier. You’d recognise Tessier if you saw him. He was in a lot of 1970s action films (especially with Burt Reynolds) – usually as a big bad bald man. And guess what he plays here? Yep, a big bad bald man. In the fight scenes, he lowers his head so his opponent, when he punches, would hit the top of his bald skull, and the blow would be deflected. He also grins like a Chesire cat. This is one guy, who really enjoys hurting people, and he is the perfect opponent for Chaney.
I don’t know if Bronson and Coburn were friends – it is alleged that Bronson was a hard man to get to know and didn’t have too many close friends. However they appeared in several films together. Most notably The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.
As the film was a period piece, and did not have an overtly 1970’s style, it has not really dated too much, and if you’ll pardon the cliche, it still packs a powerful punch, and is one of Bronson’s more watchable films – but hey, as I said the top, I’ll watch anything with Bronson in it. Anyone in the mood for Mr. Majestyk?