Murphy's Law
Twilight Time // R // $29.95 // September 13, 2016
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted November 4, 2016
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Murphy's Law (1986), a not very good but nevertheless amusing thriller, holds a special place in this reviewer's cinephilic heart. About 16 years ago, I was working at MGM during a major remastering push that included star Charles Bronson's numerous exploitation mellers for Cannon Films, ten features beginning with 1981's Death Wish II and ending with Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989).

Like many, I was a fan of Bronson's, primarily for films he didn't carry alone: The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), etc. I had avoided Bronson's ‘80s vehicles, scared-off particularly by the consistently scathing reviews of Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert. Ebert, for instance, called 10 to Midnight "a scummy little sewer of a movie. What is [Bronson] doing in a garbage disposal like this?" They often compared Bronson's performances in these films to that of a cigar store Indian.

But Murphy's Law was being remastered and the project manager assigned to the title, probably without much enthusiasm, was running a newly struck print in a screening room that day. I hadn't seen it before, so I went, too, mildly curious.

The movie was awash with genre thriller clichés, extreme (for its day) and gratuitous violence, and prolix with laughable profanity. And yet, largely due to Bronson's presence, it was also enormously entertaining. More to the point, it spurred me to seek out other Bronson films I hadn't seen up to then, and this eventually led to my personal discovery and delight at the actor's unheralded work, really great films notably including Farewell, Friend (1968), Rider on the Rain (1970), Violent City (1970), Chato's Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), Hard Times (1975), and From Noon Till Three (1976) and, yes, the generally wildly misunderstood Death Wish (1974).

LAPD Det. Jack Murphy (Bronson) has been dipping into a sauce a bit too often since his wife, Jan (Angel Tompkins), left him to become a stripper and bed down with the Chinatown club's sleazy owner. Between nighttime stalkings of her, Murphy incurs the wrath of gangster Frank Vincenzo (Richard Romanus) after killing the drug dealer's pimp of a brother during a shootout at LAX, a bit shamelessly copied from Bullitt (1968).

Meanwhile, madwoman Joan Freeman (Carrie Snodgress), after acquiring a list of addresses from corrupt private eye Cameron (Lawrence Tierney) and murdering him in cold blood, begins stalking Murphy while he stalks Jan. Freeman eventually frames Murphy for murder but he escapes the County lockup, shackled to two-bit thief and foul-mouthed waif Arabella McGee (Kathleen Wilhoite). As the poster notes, "He's a cop. She's a thief. Together, They're Running For Their Lives!"

Murphy's Law, which, in this film anyway, is "Don't fuck with Jack Murphy," aesthetically falls somewhere in the middle of Bronson's Cannon oeuvre, lacking the delirious over-the-top action violence of Death Wish 3 or the fun of Assassination (in which his wife, Jill Ireland, played a bitchy First Lady that Secret Service agent Bronson is assigned to protect), but neither is it as tired and sleazy as The Evil That Men Do or Kinjite.

The best things going for Murphy's Law are its use of Los Angeles locations and 21-year-old Kathleen Wilhoite's spirited, profanity-laced performance, an unlikely Defiant Ones-type contentious partnership that's often amusing. Maybe Gail Morgan Hickman's screenplay was deliberately trying to make her endless insults to Murphy sound immature and ridiculous ("Kiss my pantyhose, sperm bank!"), but Wilhoite's committed performance brings the character to life. (My personal favorite: "You snot-licking donkey fart!")

The movie was shot all over Los Angeles at a time when places like downtown, Chinatown, the Belmont Tunnel, and Macarthur Park were particularly downtrodden. The historic Bradbury Building, also prominent in movies like Blade Runner and the "Demon with a Glass Hand" episode of The Outer Limits, was used for the outrageous climax.

Sleaziness aside, Bronson's Cannon fodder always seemed to attract better actors than these movies deserved. Beyond those mentioned above, Janet MacLachlan turns up in a tiny part as Freeman's shrink, while James Luisi all but reprises his recurring hot-headed detective role from The Rockford Files.

Video & Audio

Shot for 1.85:1 widescreen, Twilight Time's MGM-licensed Murphy's Law looks and sounds good, comparable with their other Bronson-Cannon titles. Most of Cannon's titles from around this time were released in Ultra-Stereo, but this apparently was a mono release only. Nonetheless, the DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio sounds great. An isolated track of Marc Donahue and Valentine McCallum (Bronson's stepson) is also available, as are optional English subtitles. The disc is region-free.

Extra Features

Supplements include an audio commentary with actress Wilhoite, who's full of great anecdotes about Bronson and her telling experiences about a young actress early in her career. A trailer rounds out the extras.

Parting Thoughts

Murphy's Law is far from Bronson's best but is quite entertaining nonetheless. Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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