“The Mechanic” was the second of six movies Charles Bronson and director Michael Winner made together. The action thriller came fresh off the heels of their 1972 revisionist Western “Chato’s Land” and just a couple of films before their most noted collaboration “Death Wish”. Although it received mixed reviews at the time of its release, “The Mechanic” has long been appreciated by Bronson fans and even inspired a 2011 remake starring Jason Statham.
Among the film’s most memorable features is its riveting opening. At just over 15 minutes, with no dialogue, and shrewdly shot by cinematographer Richard Kline, we watch as a highly skilled contract killer (Bronson) sets up shop in an upstairs room above a city pawn shop. There he monitors a man in an apartment directly across the street from his. The assassin notes every detail of the man’s room and memorizes his routine. Then we watch as he meticulously executes his assignment with lethal precision.
The hitman is Arthur Bishop, who is also known as a “mechanic”. He takes exclusive contracts from an international crime syndicate referenced only as “the Association”. Arthur is an expert at his craft, known for his dependability and efficiency. While killing for hire is an ugly job, it pays well, allowing Arthur to live a life of comfort. When not planning and carrying out hits, he loses himself in what he enjoys most – art, a good pipe, and his red silk pajamas.
But we also see signs that Arthur’s work is taking a toll. He takes antidepressants and even ends up in the hospital after an anxiety attack. He frequently visits a call girl (played by Brosnan’s wife at the time, Jill Ireland) to help with the loneliness and isolation his job demands. He pays her to pretend to be in love with him, faking a romantic relationship and even writing fake love letters to help him feel something similar to affection.
Arthur is contacted by his bosses who want one of their owned whacked. They put out a contract on Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn), an old acquaintance of Arthur’s father who has gotten crossways with the higher-ups. Despite being friendly with his target, Arthur carries out the job without hesitation. As a result, Harry’s cocky and entitled 24-year-old son Steve (Jan-Michael Vincent) inherits his father’s fortune.
If you’ve seen a mob movie or two you may think you know where the story is heading – an angry son sets out to get revenge on the man who killed his father. But writer Lewis John Carlino doesn’t go the predictable route. Instead he throws us a twist. Instead of a quest for vengeance, Steve wants to learn more about his father’s business. He’s especially interested in contract killing. So he seeks out Arthur, knowing he did some work for his father but not knowing he’s the guy who killed him. Or does he? We don’t know, and Carlino does a good job keeping us wondering.
Arthur ends up breaking one of his rules and takes Steve on as his apprentice. It creates an interesting dynamic and builds a satisfying tension. We’re left asking a number of questions. How much does Steve know? Is Arthur letting his guard down? What will the crime bosses do once they get wind that Arthur has brought an unvetted newcomer into their fold? Winner does a good job planting those questions in our minds and unveiling the eventual answers.
The movie bogs down a little once Arthur begins teaching and training Steve in his new craft. Yet these scenes do have value as they help give shape to the relationship between the two characters. But things pick up pretty quick after Arthur takes Steve on his first job, and later when the two head to Naples to knock off a mobster who’s about to talk to the local police. Each scenario is flavored by some good action, particularly one thrilling off-road motorcycle chase, and an even more exciting car chase and shoot-out across the Italian countryside.
Through it all Bronson leads with his signature tough-guy grit and stoicism. It’s a really good performance for a role that was right in his wheelhouse. Vincent, who had a successful but troubled career, is a little more inconsistent. He starts to settle in later in the movie, but early on his attempts at portraying Steve’s spoiled narcissism is a bit spotty.
As for Winner’s direction, he does a solid job building up and bringing together the story and its characters. Aside from a sluggish middle patch, the pacing is good and the payoff is still a satisfying punctuation mark. “The Mechanic” remains a solid entry in Bronson’s filmography and one that sits comfortably in the middle of arguably the best five-year run of the late actor’s four-decade-plus career. I love that it still holds up after 50 years, and it still shows why Charles Bronson was once considered the quintessential movie tough guy.