As director Simon West’s remake of The Mechanic starring Jason Statham hits theaters this Friday, it occurred to me that, for whatever reason, I had never seen the 1972 Charles Bronson original. It’s just one if those films I meant to catch but never did, which is odd considering how much I enjoy thrillers from this particular era. I’m thinking of the gritty, realistic, and occasionally nihilistic style of filmmaking that reigned in Hollywood with such films as Dirty Harry (1971), Deliverance (1972) and Marathon Man (1976). These are the kinds of films I suspect if made today would end up making a run on the art house circuit in limited release (like the excellent Harry Brown starring Michael Caine for example), if not turned into an over-the-top action flick as the remake of The Mechanic seems to be from the trailer.
This was the second collaboration of star Bronson and director Michael Winner, the first being Chato’s Land (released earlier in 1972). Their most notable collaboration would come in 1974 with Death Wish — a film very much deserving of a second look if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it.
In The Mechanic, Bronson plays Arthur Bishop, a professional hit man who plans his kills methodically, leaving very little trace of his involvement. The opening is an excellent 15-minute sequence which plays with no dialogue, showing Bishop carrying out one of his assignments. He stakes out his victim from the apartment across the street and sets up an elaborate method to eliminate his prey involving a gas stove, a tiny amount of plastic explosives and one bullet to set it off.
At the film’s heart is an interesting character study of this man, who is at one point given an assignment to take out one of the bosses in the organization he works for, an old acquaintance (Keenan Wynn) who used to work with his father. Bishop carries out the mission in his usual deliberate manner and afterwards he takes an interest in the man’s son, Steve (Jan-Michael Vincent). Steve shows interest in Bishop’s profession and demonstrates an aptitude for it, so Bishop eventually decides he could use an associate and begins to teach Steve his intellectual approach to killing. And thus begins their uneasy friendship.
Accompanying all of this is a chilling, tense, understated score by the great Jerry Fielding, composer of The Wild Bunch (1969) and frequent collaborator with its director Sam Peckinpah.
The Mechanic was one of Jan-Michael Vincent’s earliest film roles — it certainly had been his biggest role at the time. He would go on to star in many other notable films of the ’70s including the John Milius surfer movie Big Wednesday (1978) and the badass “trucker takes on the man” flick, White Line Fever (1975) — though I should mention that I haven’t seen it in a long time and have no idea if it holds up, but as a kid I remember it being pretty great.
The Mechanic is not a perfect film. There are out-of-place attempts at humor, such as the completely out-of-the-blue moment showing people who appear to be well-off neighbors of one of Bishop’s targets complaining of motorcycle noises just prior to motorcycles racing across their backyard during the middle of a chase — something that seems more fitting for a Smokey and the Bandit movie than a serious examination of a professional assassin’s life.
I’ll wager two things about the remake of The Mechanic. One, I bet they don’t have the stones to open the movie with a 15-minute sequence with no dialogue. Two, considering Hollywood’s current obsession with having successful movie franchises, I bet they change the original’s ending. I could be wrong of course, but we’ll have to wait until Friday to see.