Nolte: 13 Charles Bronson Movies to Watch Before the Left Bans Them

Charles Bronson aiming weapon in a scene from the film 'Death Wish 3', 1985. (Photo by Cannon/Getty Images)
Cannon/Getty Images

Violence, masculinity, rugged individualism, sex, nudity, fun… Yeah, you might want to watch these Bronson movies before the fascist left bans them as a “something that makes me feel unsafe.”

He was born Charles Buchinsky on November 3, 1921, the 11th of 15 children.  At age ten, his father died and he went to work, eventually in the coalmines, where he would stay until entering the Air Force in 1943. During World War II, Bronson would fly 25 missions over the South Pacific and win the Purple Heart.

After the war, his interest in acting drove him to New York (where he roomed with Jack Klugman) and then to Hollywood where, starting in 1951, he almost immediately began picking up steady work in the movies.

This means Bronson was already 30-years-old before he first appeared on screen.

Being a late bloomer would define much of his career.

Bronson was nearly 40 when he appeared in The Magnificent Seven, the 1960 Western that boosted him into a steady and reliable featured player. After age 40, he would co-star in The Great Escape (1963), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

It was right around this time that Bronson — urged by his new wife, actress and frequent co-star Jill Ireland — realized he was closing in on 50 and running out of time to become a star. So, like a lot of actors during the era (Clint Eastwood for example), he decided to try his luck overseas in Europe where he could be a leading man.

In 1970, stardom finally arrived with Rider on the Rain, France’s version of a Hitchcokian mystery-romance, that broke box office records and won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.

Bronson returned to Hollywood, and in 1972, at age 51, hit the trifecta with The Valachi Papers, Chato’s Land, and The Mechanic. All three were modest hits that cemented Bronson star status. Then, at age 53, he became a bonafide superstar with 1974’s Death Wish, a smash that spawned four sequels.

Over the next 20 years, until his retirement from the big screen in 1994, Bronson would star in more than two dozen movies, almost all of them worth your time.

He was a one-of-a-kind screen presence with a quiet intensity that assured  you he could always get the job done, primarily because he was capable of violence. His persona was unknowable and aloof, which drew you to him. You never knew what he was thinking. You only knew it would lead to action, so you kept your eyes peeled.

Well into his sixties, he remained in better physical shape than most boxers. At five-foot eight-inches, he had the physique of a welterweight that seemed carved from the same granite as his face — and what a face. Was there ever a movie star with smaller eyes? With more creases and lines? With more character? Who looked more lived in? Who could say so much by doing so little?

In real-life, Bronson earned a reputation as a man every bit as hard to know as his screen persona. He kept to himself on the set. Didn’t party afterwards. Instead, he went home to his large family. When on-location, he brought the family along. He could be prickly and vain, difficult and distant. He coveted his hard-earned stardom, refused to share it, and understandably resented an industry that only called him Charlie-baby after he became a star.

Just as he was on-screen, Charles Bronson was his own man, and below are 13 (okay, 17 with the Death Wish series) Charles Bronson movies everyone should see. Yes, you should of course see The Dirty Dozen, Magnificent Seven, Once Upon a Time in the West, etc. But the below titles are, at least to me, Charles Bronson Movies, a genre all its own, and while he never made a truly bad movie, these are my favorites…

 

Chato’s Land (1972)

Bronson’s decade-long relationship with director Michael Winner began here with one of the most brutal and brutally-effective Westerns you’ll ever see.  Bronson plays the title character, a half-Apache hunted by a posse after he shoots and kills a local sheriff in self-defense.

Like most Bronson characters, Chato just wants to be left alone, is slow to violence, and willing to move along if only you’d let him be. So, at first, and despite numerous opportunities, instead of killing them, Chato leads the posse of racists and misfits deep into Apache territory hoping to wear them down.

Then they find his home and gang rape his wife… so hell is unleashed.

 

The Mechanic (1972)

Winner again directs this masterpiece about a professional assassin (Bronson) who agrees to take on an apprentice (Jan-Michael Vincent).

More than 40 years ago, it was catching the first 15 minutes of this on the late show — an almost dialogue-free study in the planning, set-up, and execution of a hit — that forever made me a Bronson (and Winner) fan.

 

Chino (1973)

Along with Someone Behind the Door (which I’ve never seen) and Cold Sweat (which almost made this list), Chino is one of those Bronson movies forever cheapened as a public domain title only  available by way of terrible copies from distributors like GoodTimes (remember them?).

It deserved so much better.

This was Bronson’s fifth (and last) movie with director John Sturges (Great Escape, Magnificent Seven), and apparently required extensive reshoots, which Sturges wasn’t involved in. As painful as the production might have been, this is probably Bronson’s most underrated and under-appreciated movie.

Once again, Bronson is half-Indian, and now he’s caught between those two worlds: Not really Indian. Not really white. So he ekes out a lonely life breaking mustangs and, over the years, has almost accidentally set down roots by building a small ranch and basically adopting a runaway as a son. Everything goes south when he falls in love with a white woman (Jill Ireland).

There’s some pretty solid action, but Chino is really a character study, a ballad of sorts, and a melancholy one that lingers long after the movie’s over.

 

The Stone Killer (1973)

A ludicrous plot about a Mafioso (Martin Balsam) looking for revenge on the 42nd(?) anniversary of something called the “Night of Sicilian Vespers” should not dissuade you from what is an outstanding 1970’s urban-actioner filled with terrific car chases, gun fights, and big city grit.

It also the first historic paring of Mr. Roper (Norman Fell) and Jack Tripper (John Ritter).

 

Mr. Majestyk (1974)

Like all great Americans before him, Vince Majestyk (Bronson) just wants to bring in his watermelon crop and drink beer. Enter the great Paul Koslo (who’s also in the Stone Killer) as a bottom-feeding racketeer who demands Majestyk hire his laborers (drunks) instead of the Mexicans already hired.

Thanks to Elmore Leonard’s brilliant plotting, this eventually leads to a jailbreak, which leads to  Majestyk facing down an infamous mob hitman (Al Lettieri) and his gang.

Bronson is hilarious, charming, romantic, and resourceful. The plot zips. There’s a fantastic car chase.

Great, great movie.

 

Death Wish 1-5 (1974 – 1994)

The franchise that made Bronson a superstar launched in 1974 with the original Death Wish, a box office phenomenon that also touched the nerve of a public tired of urban blight and a society that cared more about criminals than protecting society from those same criminals.

The original Death Wish is its own thing, and one that has nothing to do with revenge. Paul Kersey (Bronson), the bleeding heart architect and conscientious objector, does not hunt the thugs who murdered his wife and raped his daughter. We never see them again. Instead, his sense of helplessness drives him into the streets to confront and kill New York’s unending supply of muggers. This is a much more complicated movie than its given credit for.

Death Wish II (1982) began Bronson’s long and fruitful association with Cannon Films, and is, in my opinion, the best of the series. Pure exploitation that turns Kersey into an avenging angel dressed all in black as he stalks Hollywood Boulevard to hunt the punks who murdered his daughter and housekeeper.

Death Wish 3 (1985) is Paul Kersey as Rambo (with a little Home Alone tossed in) gunning down a New York street gang menacing old people stuck in a rundown apartment building.  Outlandish, over the top, and 100 percent fun. Bronson reportedly hated it so much he would never again work with director Winner (who also directed 1 and 2).

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) gives us Paul Kersey as a mercenary for hire, and now he’s after the mobsters who peddle the drugs that killed his girlfriend’s daughter.  Ably directed by frequent Bronson collaborator J. Lee Thompson, Death Wish 4 is never boring, captures late-1980s L.A. like few other movies, and its focus on high-level drug dealers is a nice break from seedy street thugs.

Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994) once again sees Kersey defending the people he loves. Brutalized by critics at the time and a box office catastrophe, Bronson’s final theatrical appearance has gained in reputation, thanks mostly to the supporting cast, especially Michael Parks, who helps bring it surprising life. And of course there’s Bronson, who at 73 remained as formidable as ever.

Knowing this will be Bronson’s final big screen appearance makes the final scene all the more poignant.

 

Hard Times (1975)

First-time director Walter Hill delivers an outstanding Depression-era charmer about a slick hustler named Speed (a terrific James Coburn) and Chaney (Bronson), a mysterious drifter ready to make some fast cash in the illegal trade of bare-knuckle brawling.

A Charles Bronson movie for people who don’t like Charles Bronson movies.

 

Breakheart Pass (1975)

Alistair MacLean wrote the script. Jerry Goldsmith wrote the music. Lucien Ballard shot it. Richard Crenna, Ed Lauter, Ben Johnson, Jill Ireland, and Charles Durning co-star. Somehow it still flopped, but it’s a doozy of Western-mystery with plenty of action, most of it set on a moving train.

 

Borderline (1980)

One of Bronson’s lesser known titles is a modern-day Western-mystery where he plays a Border Patrol Agent looking to find who murdered his friend (Wilford Brimley). Turns out it was Ed Harris (in his big screen debut), a ruthless enforcer and coyote importing cheap, illegal labor for a syndicate of corporations.

Not just a solid movie, but as timely today as it was 41 years ago.

 

Death Hunt (1981)

Bronson and Lee Marvin re-team (The Dirty Dozen) with a wasted but welcome Angie Dickinson in this exciting story about the classic Bronson character — a man who wants to be left alone but is drawn into violence.

 

10 to Midnight (1983)

When people talk about Bronson’s “Cannon era,” this is the title that pretty much defines that seven-year run. There’s a nude psycho (Gene Davis) running around killing beautiful women (most of them also nude) and there’s no law Leo Kessler (Bronson) won’t break to stop him.

J. Lee Thompson and Bronson made nine films together (they still had five to go) and this was the one where they finally found their groove: Violence, sex, revenge…

 

The Evil That Men Do (1984)

J. Lee Thomson and Bronson together again in another underrated and under-appreciated actioner. Bronson plays a retired assassin talked out of the quiet life to put an end to “The Doctor” (Joseph Maher), an expert in torture and interrogation. Problem is, The Doctor is protected by the many governments who find him useful, including our own.

One of Bronson’s few non-Cannon theatrical movies during this time.

My only complaint is that it’s not available on Blu-ray, or even high definition.

 

Murphy’s Law (1986)

Another J. Lee Thompson classic where Bronson plays an alcoholic cop framed by a serial killer for the murder of his stripper ex-wife, and now he’s on the run with a foul-mouthed, female car thief (Why don’t you bite me, dinosaur dork!).

Somehow this already-insane (in a good way) plot managed to still make room for mobsters.

Gloriously sleazy and insanely re-watchable.

Bronson’s box office clout had pretty much evaporated around 1980. It was cable TV and home video that kept him a star, and still keeps him a star.

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