Thursday, May 8, 2008

Bronson's best

For a brief period in the seventies, Charles Bronson was the biggest movie star in the world. A working actor for over two decades, Bronson was featured as a thug or henchmen in a number of films ('Crime Wave', 'House of Wax') in the 50s and 60s. His luck started to change in the early sixties, when he was cast in a trio of all star action flicks that gave him a larger profile than he had previously enjoyed. The films, 'The Magnificent Seven', 'The Great Escape' and 'The Dirty Dozen', are commonly regarded among the best of the epic action films.

Bronson, born Charles Buchinsky, in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania, brought a grounded, earthy, no-nonsense persona to the screen that took American cinema awhile to warm up to. Internationally, he developed a massive fan base, with films like 'Violent City', 'Cold Sweat' and 'Rider on the Rain'. Most famous for the original vigilante film, 'Death Wish', Bronson scored several overlooked films during the seventies that bear mentioning. 'The Mechanic', a story about a James Bondian hitman grooming his protege', Jan Michael Vincent, 'Chato's Land', a western starring Bronson as a nearly mute Indian out for revenge, and 'The Valachi Papers', a fact based mafia wise guy story. But the best of the bunch is screenwriter Walter Hill's directorial debut, 'Hard Times', known outside the US as 'The Streetfighter'.

Set in depression-era New Orleans, Bronson plays a mysterious drifter named Chaney, who winds up in a series of streetfights for cash. James Coburn plays his fast talking manager, Speed, Strother Martin is Poe, the alcohol medical man and Bronson's real life wife Jill Ireland plays the hooker who has a thing for Chaney. The story is simple, but effective. Bronson plays Chaney like a man with a past that's never too far from his future. The fights, and there are a lot of them, are brutal but never gratuitous. At 54 years of age, Bronson convincingly handles all of the action with dispassionate grace.

The cinematography captures the dreary depressed feel of the Crescent City in a way that has additional resonance post Katrina.

There have been many 'streetfighter' movies since 'Hard Times', but nothing hits like the original. Add it to your Netflix list, along with 'The Mechanic' , 'Violent City' and 'Once Upon A Time In America', and you'll have the best of Bronson.

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