There's a great cult film inside The Mechanic but it needed a great director to get out. Unfortunately, what it got was Michael Winner. Usually he is a mundane movie helmer with no distinguishing visual characteristics except a penchant for kinky sex. Action star Charles Bronson had formed some kind of Satanic pack with the British Winner in the '70s and The Mechanic, their second film, remains one of the more interesting of their collaborations. After this, they did Death Wish, and everything went to hell.
Bronson is Arthur Bishop, hitman for a vague Point Blank-style "commission" of anonymous gangsters. He's one of those sophisticated killers who works alone and works slowly, studying pix of his victim and the victim's environment as drinks wine from a snifter and listens to classical music.
Bishop has a few problems, however. He's wound a little tight, and like Tony Soprano is subject to anxiety-related fainting spells. They are due to his relationship with his father, who was a rather cold gangster who once allowed his son to almost drown while teaching him to swim. The only form of intimacy he has is a relationship with a hooker (Bronson's wife Jill Ireland) whom he pays to act like she loves him, like the scene at the end of Carnal Knowledge. Into this isolation comes Steve McKenna (Jan-Michael Vincent), the son of an old colleague (Keenan Wynn) of Bishop's father. Bishop reluctantly takes on the irresponsible, cold-hearted, and selfish kid as an apprentice and they do a couple of hits together until it seems as if Bishop's bosses are set to turn on him.
The movie is written by playwright-turned-screenwriter Lewis John Carlino, who is sort of the first John Milius or James Toback. Carlino also did The Brotherhood, and a couple of other gangster epics. Carlino composed some nice scenes for The Mechanic. The film opens with a great sequence about one of Bishop's hits, reminiscent of how James Earl Ray shot Martin Luther King, which includes some great window snooping voyeurism in the tradition of Rear Window and 8mm. The film ends with an exciting chase down the Italian coast that anticipates a similar chase scene in Ronin.
What Winner brings to the package is a tilt to the ludicrous. Superman Bishop, for example, is able to read lips via binoculars as the observed are actually speaking. And Winner's idea of what hippies do at parties is to call Afganistan and play with oversized balloons.
What is all Carlino is the barely disguised homoerotic subtext. Vincent is introduced via his buttocks, and there is a attraction-competition between the older man and his young, raw recruit. The 1972 Signet novelization, also written by Carlino, makes the homoeroticism more explicit. One of the pair even places a full mouthed kiss on the lips of the other as he dies.
The acting throughout the film is a little uneven, from Vincent and others, such as the actress who plays Steve's suicidal girlfriend Louise, but the center of the film is Bronson and he is great. The film is a character study more than a story, and Bronson is adept at capturing the pained creature beneath the scary brute. The camera lovingly dwells on his ugly beauty, and it's not everyone who can carry a film like this, a blend of action and morbid psychology. One laments that Bronson didn't have better career choices in directors and projects.
VIDEO: MGM offers a bare bones account of The Mechanic. The double-sided, dual-layered disc offers a wide screen version of the film (1.85:1) enhanced for widescreen televisions on one side, and a full frame version on the other. Long time DP Richard H. Kline's cinematography is mostly conventional, probably thanks to Winner's rush job mentality, but there are some extremely good shots in the film. The images is mostly scratch free but does look a little faded at times.
SOUND: The film comes in an adequate Dolby Digital mono track that comes in English and French, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
MENUS: The static, silent menu offers 16 chapter scene selection for the 99 minute movie.
PACKAGING: The keep case offers a collage of images in place of the original poster on the cover, and more images on the back.
EXTRAS: The Mechanic is a stripped down release with little or no added value. It comes with the original theatrical trailer and that's it. This trailer is a scratchy full frame affair with a different, re-release, title (Killer of Killers) and is narrated by a man who apparently hasn't seen the film. He seems to think that it is a movie version of the Executioner pop novel series and that it concerns a vigilante ("One man who does what the police won't do. What the government can't do. He stops the underworld dead in its tracks"). There is no mention that Bronson's character is the underworld. This trailer also contains a few images that aren't in the film itself.