Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Cannon Files: ASSASSINATION (1987) and MESSENGER OF DEATH (1988)

(US - 1987)

Watchable but mostly forgettable Charles Bronson outing was a PG-13 change-of-pace for the actor and gave him a chance to work with wife and frequent co-star Jill Ireland one last time. Ireland was offscreen since 1982's DEATH WISH II and had been battling breast cancer since 1984. She was in good health again by the time of ASSASSINATION, and only appeared in one more film (a small role in the barely-released, Billy Graham-financed 1987 religious drama CAUGHT), before her cancer returned and she died in 1990.

Bronson is veteran Secret Service agent Jay Killian, assigned to protect incoming First Lady Lara Craig (Ireland), codenamed "One Mama." One Mama proves to be a bit of a feisty bitch, and doesn't feel like listening to Killian even when it becomes clear that someone is trying to kill her. But why? Killian and One Mama end up spending the second half of the film on the run cross-country, stopping to buy motorcycles in Kokomo, IN, an area that's curiously filled with palm trees and mountains on the horizon (there's also some visible palm trees in a few DC shots), as they try to evade a team of assassins working for someone who ranks high in the government.

ASSASSINATION is a very plodding, slowly-paced film that feels much longer than its brief 88 minutes. My dad and I saw this when it opened in January 1987 and I recall both of us being disappointed. I hadn't seen it all the way through since then, and remembered almost nothing about it other than the terrible rug worn by Michael Ansara, playing a senator. ASSASSINATION looks and feels like a bland TV-movie.  Bronson gives it some life in his scenes with Ireland. No one ever accused Ireland of being a great actress, but Bronson loved her more than anything and he was clearly in good spirits being able to work with her. And Ireland has one legitimately hilarious bit where she's trying to dodge Bronson and disguises herself in a black wig and dances down the street. I think you can actually see her trying not to laugh. There's more (intentional) humor than usual here, especially with Bronson being aggressively pursued by his much younger partner Jan Gan Boyd, but it just never gets rolling despite a capable action director in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE's Peter Hunt, who previously directed Bronson in 1981's DEATH HUNT. Also with Stephen Elliott as Bronson's boss (who gets a "No way that would fly today" throwaway line where he refers to the Asian-American Boyd as "Charlie Chan"), William Prince, Erik Stern, Peter Lupus, Frank Zagarino, and, in the film's oddest casting, Billy Hayes as one of the hired killers. Yeah...the subject of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. THAT Billy Hayes. Harmless and not awful by any means, but probably the weakest film from the Cannon/Golan-Globus era of Bronson's career, despite some promising elements that just never quite come together.  (PG-13, 88 mins)

(US - 1988)

Charles Bronson's penultimate '80s Cannon outing is a mostly low-key mystery and another attempt by the actor to try something different.  Bronson is crusading Denver newspaper reporter Garrett Smith, who finds himself in the middle of a war between two feuding Mormon brothers (Jeff Corey, John Ireland), but it's really all part of a nefarious water company's plot to gain access to an artesian well on Ireland's property. MESSENGER OF DEATH ambles along and is rather slowly-paced and predictable (never trust a prominently-billed, recognizable actor who doesn't have much to do with the plot), but Bronson makes it enjoyable entertainment.

The star had remained busy throughout the decade (teaming up once again with his favorite '80s director J. Lee Thompson) but as the '80s came to a close, his films became less popular, especially in the wake of big-budget hits like LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD. Even an established icon like Clint Eastwood was losing his audience during this period and he was a decade younger than Bronson. Action movies had suddenly changed.  They got bigger and they got louder, and by the latter part of 1988, younger audiences weren't really interested in films with 67-year-old Bronson directed by a 74-year-old Thompson, just as older folks who might like a cozy Bronson mystery were likely turned off by all the violence and sleaze in most of his films. The R-rated MESSENGER tones much of that down (not as much as 1987's PG-13-rated ASSASSINATION), with a few bits of gunshot splatter and an occasional "bastard" and "son-of-a-bitch" and one late F-bomb from the bad guy, and feels a lot like the TV movies Bronson would do in the '90s that would represent his final work before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.  Bronson only fires a gun once in MESSENGER, and it's at an empty casket so he can prove no one's inside of it (I don't know why he couldn't just, you know, open it). All that, plus a cast filled with aging character actors (Corey, Ireland), and familiar TV faces (Laurence Luckinbill, Marilyn Hassett, Charles Dierkop, Don Kennedy, plus Daniel Benzali, Bronson's now-clothed 10 TO MIDNIGHT co-star Gene Davis, and a completely underutilized Trish Van Devere), meant that there wasn't much of a chance for MESSENGER OF DEATH in theaters, and it died a quick death. Bronson and Thompson had the much more typically trashy "vigilante cop vs. scumbag pimp" underage prostitution thriller KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS out in theaters five months later and when it fared just as poorly, Bronson was effectively done in theatrical features except for a small character role in Sean Penn's THE INDIAN RUNNER (1991) and a one-shot return to his vigilante schtick in 1994's DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH.

MESSENGER OF DEATH is hardly top-drawer Bronson, but looking it again 23 years later (I haven't seen it since renting the VHS when it came out) and far removed from the "Bronson just makes the same tired movie over and over again" criticisms, it's not all that bad. Slight and forgettable, yes...but even in B fare like this, Bronson was still The Man.  (R, 91 mins)

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