The time has come to start talking about The Man. Who’s the Man? Charles Bronson is the mother fuckin’ Man. In a nutshell the career of Charles Bronson represents every ounce of masculinity, testosterone and male camaraderie that the silver screen has ever had to offer. A true man’s man. Along with Lee Marvin he ushered in the first era of action movie stars with a string of high octane revenge thrillers and westerns in the 60s and 70s. What sets Bronson aside from Marvin and for me what makes him my personal favorite is that Charlie “Babe” Buchinski was born into poverty, spoke little-to-no English and yet launched himself from the coal mines of Pennsylvania and the aerial battlefields of WWII into a successful career ranging from character actor to leading man.
One of 15 children born to a family of Lithuanian immigrants, his family was so poor that legend has it he was once sent to elementary school one day wearing a dress because the family had no other clean clothes. Despite his cult status as being an ogre of a man and a true badass, Bronson had a keen interest in Art and studied it in college. So what makes Charles Bronson such a badass is that he’s just so nice. As you can see in the many number of on-screen pairings with his real life wife Jill Ireland, the man was a ladies’ man. Romantic, charming, suave, gentle, innocent. It is for this reason alone that when his characters in his films have a true injustice done onto them (usually the brutal rape and torture and murder of a loved one) we immediately sympathize with the violence and carnage that ultimately ensue. His characters are always tough but never cruel. Bronson never takes down a man that doesn’t deserve it and he never abuses women and children. To my knowledge he’s never played a villain. Bronson’s characters are men of peace and vigilance. You’re either on his side or at the end of his gun.
Bronson’s most memorable role came to him when he was over 50 with Michael Winner’s Death Wish. One of the highest grossing movies of 1974 and spawning four sequels over a 20 year period, Death Wish is the film that became synonymous with Charles Bronson and vigilante films. Architect Paul Kersey has his life torn from him when a vicious gang (including Jeff Goldblum in his screen debut) rapes his wife and daughter in their New York City apartment, leaving the wife dead and the daughter in a catatonic state. When the over-worked police department fails to find the culprits and the violence of today’s youth continues to run rampant on the city streets, Kersey takes matters into his own hands. Armed first with a hard hitting sock stuffed with quarters and later a .32 colt revolver he begins to pick off muggers and thieves one by one.
The film was attacked by critics upon release for its advocating vigilantism and unlawful punishment. Yet Death Wish is far from it. Following Kersey’s first altercation with a mugger we see Kersey at home, nauseated by his acts of violence and physically sick. The next altercation is against three men all robbing a defenseless old man. We see that Kersey does not wish to kill again but has no other choice but to save this man’s life. After that the killing of criminals has become an addiction for Kersey and we find him slowly slipping into the desperation and depravity of the criminals he takes down. We see Kersey walk a fine line between vigilante and criminal himself. The film would be exploitive of vigilantism if it didn’t show the repercussions of Paul Kersey’s acts. If we watched this film just for the sake of Bronson killing people (like we do with its stripped-down sequels) then it would be a different matter. What critics didn’t consider is that there is a real character study going on beneath the rough and tough action. Paul Kersey shows that anybody can be a killer.
The film climaxes with an NYPD Lieutenant (played by Vincent Gardenia) running Paul Kersey out of town. In the film’s subsequent sequels Kersey’s vigilantism continues in increasing exploitative ways. By Death Wish 3 Bronson’s rockin a rocket launcher. The sequels are entertaining in the most outrageous of ways but this first film still stands as one of the great crime dramas of the 1970s.