Jan 22 2011

The Mechanic (1972)

Though it lacks some hard-hitting, Bronson-approved violence, it is oddly thought provoking. 3 out of 4

Charles Bronson and director Michael Winner are most famous for their work on the Death Wish series, which set the tone for shoot ‘em up revenge movies for years to come.  The Mechanic, in which Bronson plays a hit man for a criminal organization, may carry similar bang-bang expectations, but many will be surprised that the film is a bit slower and more clever than anything the two did in Death Wish.

Arthur Bishop (Bronson) is a hit man who designs his hits to look like commonplace accidents, much like a contract-killing MacGyver.  After an old family friend is killed, the man’s son Steve (Jon-Michael Vincent) asks Bishop to take him under his wing.

Most of the “training” we see in the film involves lectures on planning, organization, and personal philosophy instead of extreme target practice, which appropriately fits the tone of the film.  Much of what Bishop does is research, observation and careful planning, which makes for a pretty lame action movie.  Then again, The Mechanic is not an action movie; at least, not the kind we’re used to.  Films in the Seventies tended to be character driven while the action filled in the gaps, not the other way around.

For example, there is virtually no dialogue for the first fifteen minutes of The Mechanic; we just watch Bishop go through his routine of watching a mark, setting up the mark’s apartment with a simple, DIY explosive, and waiting for the right time to set it off.  Much like Jean-Pierre Melville’s La Samourai, The Mechanic tells you everything you need to know about the film without saying a word.  In a way, The Mechanic is asking us to do what Bishop does: observe, interpret and leave when it is over.

There is something oddly philosophical about the film, and the film touches on some pretty deep ideas that seem at odds with the “Charles Bronson-is-a-hit man” setup preceding the film.  A man of few words, Bishop mostly looks at his “reports” in his well furbished home, listens to classical music and looks at art pieces scattered around his home.  There is a scene in which Bishop looks through a shop window containing elegant furniture with a faint smile on his lips, then as he walks away, the camera focuses on the outside world: dirty, dark and dreary, with a couple of kids fighting on the streets.  There is a real “outsider looking in” element to story, and Bronson always looks distant and out of place no matter his setting or attire.

The same can be said about Steve, who recognizes a similar mindset within Bishop.  Steve is something of a rich, spoiled brat, yet he throws big, rambunctious parties seemingly out of habit rather than real interest, and mostly watches the Seventies-style hedonism from afar.  “I live in my mind,” he says to Bishop,” and so do you.”  Just as the two men seem a fitting pair in their mutual detachment from mainstream society, the job seems equally fitting for the same reasons.

Oddly enough, or maybe appropriately enough, this hip existentialism is best exhibited in scenes in which nothing is said.  The ever-laconic Bronson successfully manages to say everything about himself with a look or a stance, and when he does speak, he does so with sincerity and quiet conviction.  Vincent does the most talking between the two, and is, as a rich kid in his early twenties, is a little too cocky for his own good.  A typical, and entirely reasonable archetype, but there are times when Vincent is a bit too stiff.  When acting alongside a man who can do everything by seemingly doing nothing, his acting hiccups becomes very noticeable.

For the die-hard Bronson fans, or for good old-fashioned action film fans, there is no reason not to see the film; it is not all talk and watching stuff.  Like its patient protagonist, the film is all about the build up, but when it comes time for action, the film delivers some impressive chase sequences.  The film’s big climax features a very thrilling car chase around a narrow, winding road in which Bishop exhibits some of his quick thinking and creativity, with explosive results.

The term, “mechanic,” describes the film and its characters quite well, really.  A mechanic observes a complex mechanism from a (relative) distance, singles out a flaw, fixes it, and ultimately knows how each and every little part works with the others to fulfill its greater function.  The Mechanic is far more meditative than some may like, but that is the film’s strongest attribute, and the film’s preoccupation on social despondency over ass kicking is impressive, intriguing, and better executed than on would expect.

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