They don’t make actors like Charles Bronson anymore. No one except Bronson, who shows his grizzled, hard-earned authority in every line in his face, could have played the role of Arthur Bishop in 1972’s “The Mechanic.” For those who haven’t seen it – or have only seen the remake starring Jason Stratham – you owe it to yourself to check out the original. It’s by far the better version.
Bishop is a hitman who pulls off highly planned assassinations, often designed to make the victim’s death seem to be an accident. Bishop is hoping to retire, but in his business that’s not such an easy thing to accomplish. He takes young sociopath Steve McKenna (Jan Michael Vincent) under his wing, and proceeds to teach him the killing business.
For an action movie – and that’s essentially what “The Mechanic” is – the film presents a hefty amount of character development, which is rare in this genre. In the early 1970s, studios had not yet given up on the idea of making good quality, character-driven films, even if they were crime movies. There’s also lots of explosions, gunfights, motorcycle jumping and car chases to offset the more cerebral junk. And check out the opening sequence – there’s no dialogue until 15 minutes and 10 seconds into the movie – for some great visual storytelling.
Bishop is an isolated figure who had a difficult childhood. Now, he seems to shun relationships by choice, and perhaps for professional reasons. His real-life wife, Jill Ireland, known here simply as “The Girl,” makes an appearance in a scene with an unexpected twist. We see that Bishop focuses all of his energy on his work. And he shows remarkable talent and creativity when it comes to wasting people.
It’s hard to talk about the movie without giving too much away, and the surprises in store for first-time viewers are good ones. One of the most exciting aspects of “The Mechanic,” to paraphrase crime novelist Jim Thompson, is that, “nothing is what it appears to be.”
While Bronson the actor did not have a wide range, the roles he played – often the enforcer or the vigilante – were perfect for him. He gives the impression of extreme mental focus on his target, and he maintains a strict code of behavior, usually outside the law. But the world he lives in suffers from moral decay, and we always sense that he’s going to do the right thing, even if he has to break a few rules, and maybe a few limbs and skulls, in the process.
This was the second movie of six that Bronson made with director Michael Winner. Prior to this film they made "Chato's Land" (1972), and after "The Mechanic" they collaborated on "The Stone Killer" (1973), "Death Wish" (1974), "Death Wish II" (1982) and "Death Wish 3" (1985).
“The Mechanic” was retitled “The Killer of Killers” at some point of its theatrical release, but thankfully has been returned to its original title. I suspect the title switch was supposed to show that Bronson only kills guys who need killing. No need to point that out. We already knew it.