Big screen tough guys are something that I love to cover here at the Bad Ass Cinema, and I’m not talking about these namby pamby guys that Hollywood is passing off as tough guys these days. I’m talking about the guys that would actually rip your head off in a bar fight and knock out all your teeth if you looked at them wrong. This is why I’ve spent months devoting columns to the works of guys like Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal and why I plan on looking at flicks starring Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen in the near future.
Desperately searching for a tough guy to write about for this particular column, I scanned the stacks of DVDs in my house looking for something truly macho to write about that had nothing to do with giant special effects or $200 Million productions. I wanted to watch something with grit and plenty of brute force. Then I saw the stand where I keep my Charles Bronson DVDs.
How bad ass was Bronson? Well you know how you probably turned 18 and then got a job in a local grocery store or fast food joint? Bronson’s first job out of high school was to follow his father’s footsteps and go to work in the local coal mine. After eventually developing a bad case of claustrophobia, Bronson was eventually drafted and went off to fight the Japanese in WWII. It’s hard to imagine with Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson fighting them that the Japanese really stood a chance at all, much like the Germans really don’t in The Dirty Dozen.
Turning to acting as a way to make money after the war, he started out in bit parts in films, such as the Vincent Price vehicle, House of Wax. Making a name for himself on TV with roles in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and others. He would gain great fame in a number of European pictures, and finally found stardom in America in a number of teamup style pictures, including The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, and the aforementioned The Dirty Dozen.
During the 70’s and 80’s the man would achieve even greater fame, starring in his iconic role as Paul Kersey in 1974’s Death Wish and its seemingly never ending stream of sequels and knockoffs. Thing is though, this period also yielded quite a few forgotten gems from this legitimate tough guy hero. So with this column, I’d like to present one of these under-seen and under-rated Charles Bronson classics.
Mr. Majestyk Starring Charles Bronson, Al Lettieri, Linda Cristal, Paul Koslo. Directed by Richard Fleischer
There’s a moment in Quentin Tarantino’s script for True Romance when a drugged out evil pimp, played by a heavily made up Gary Oldman, says to the movie’s hero Clarence, played by Christian Slater, ” Y’know what we got here? Motherf*ckin’ Charlie Bronson. Mr. Majestyk.” I’ll admit for the longest time that I had no idea what movie Tarantino was referring to, but now that I’ve seen it, I know why QT felt the need to include the reference in the movie. He wanted to compare his character Clarence to a man that would stand for what’s right, even if he had to fight the cops and the mob in order to protect the people he loves and not just let the little man get run over in the scuffle.
Charles Bronson’s Vincent Majestyk is that type of character. He’s a just a simple watermelon farmer trying to get his crop in to be able to pay his bills and make a living. He’s fair to his workers and is never afraid to get his own hands dirty to get the work done. This is why it infuriates him when a man named Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo) tries to muscle in and make Majestyk hire only men that Bobby can get at a cut rate price. Not wanting to deal with this upstart even if it saves him some money, Bronson’s character takes the situation into his own hands in a way that only a Charles Bronson character does, but ends up arrested for his troubles.
Desperate to get back out to pick his crops, Majestyk sees when an opportunity during a botched escape attempt by Frank Renda (The Godfather’s Al Lettieri), a noted hitman and mob enforcer. Seizing his opportunity, he grabs the other convict and makes a run from the scene, only to make a deal with the police that he’ll turn Renda in in exchange for his own freedom. While this doesn’t work out like he plans, it sets up this life and death struggle between Renda and Majestyk that carries the rest of the picture.
This isn’t an Action movie really, but instead ends up a battle of wills as Renda ends up desperate to do in this watermelon farmer no matter what it costs him, and Majestyk almost treats him like an afterthought, concentrating much more on just getting his crop out, but never underestimating the mobster either. This really only serves to infuriate Renda even more, as being such a proud and feared man has been what has made him what he is, and with Majestyk not caring about those things, he loses so much of his power. Much like a prizefighter though, when he gets angry, Renda starts to get sloppy.
Really, the biggest reason the film works is because of Bronson himself. Again coming down very much to the fact that we know just how bad ass Bronson was in real life, he’s able to project that on screen, giving Majestyk an air of invincibility, while Bronson’s low key manner allows him to keep his everyman persona. Much like Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen, we just automatically know how macho and dangerous this man is, so Majestyk is ridiculously easy to buy as a character. By the time the cops are looking through Majestyk’s file and find that he was a decorated war veteran (ala Steven Seagal in a lot of his films) it almost seems like overkill. After Majestyk punches out his first scumbag and takes a hold of the guy’s shotgun within the movies first ten minutes, we already know that he’s the most bad ass watermelon farmer in the history of the planet.
Lettieri’s Renda does make for a terrific screen opponent for Bronson’s Majestyk. With his despicable cronies never hesitating to do his bidding for him, it makes you respect him somewhat that he would simply decide instead to just handle this Majestyk situation himself rather than just putting a contract out on the farmer. Lettieri himself is quite imposing and has terrific screen presence in his own right, which is evident in a scene in which he talks down to Bobby Kopas, and you can see just how scary he can be.
My favorite scene between the two characters, and also I think the best in the film, is one in which Bronson is on a date with a migrant worker named Nancy Chavez (Linda Cristal). Already showing how bad ass he is by having this exchange with Chavez,
Nancy Chavez: If you want to go to bed with me, why don’t you say so?
Vince Majestyk: I don’t want to talk about it, I want to do it.
The scene then proceeds to jump up a notch when Renda shows up and confronts his would be prey. In front of police and everyone, Lettieri’s hitman strides in and sits in front of Majestyk, promising to kill him and do it himself. Bronson’s character, with very few words, simply gives Renda one of the most vicious screen punches I’ve ever seen and then walks out with his date.
The movie, directed by Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green
) unfolds at a very leisurely pace. We’re not given loads of gratuitous violence, but what is there is very effective, which is the case with this previous scene. The film’s big action highlight is an outstanding truck chase, in which Renda and his small army of thugs try to take out Majestyk and Chavez, driving only his beat up old truck. The scene is actually a pretty impressive case of 70’s vehicular mayhem, and according to IMDB.com
the Ford truck that was used in the scene was not modified in any way, though it takes quite a bit of damage. Ford was apparently so impressed that it started using footage from the film in ads to show just how impressive their trucks are.
I also have to note a particular scene in the film where Renda tries to incite Majestyk to attack him. The scene is odd, because in a normal Action film the movie would have the villains attack the hero’s family, trying to get under his skin and intimidate him. Only Majestyk really doesn’t have a family, so instead Renda goes after his real love; his watermelons. In a scene that ranks up there in strangeness with Tom Hanks crying for his beloved Wilson in Cast Away, we get a prolong sequence in which Renda and his men put out a serious hit on a barn full of watermelons, and yet it still doesn’t feel silly.
is a thoroughly satisfying Tough Guy movie, with Bronson and Lettieri filling up the screen with enough masculinity for 10 men. The film isn’t an Action spectacular and doesn’t contain a lot of fireworks, but is still a terrifically effective character piece, true to the novel by Elmore Leonard. So those that thought that Bronson may have just been “That guy in Death Wish
” should definitely check this flick out and maybe should think about it next time you bite into a delicious watermelon.
Picture Credits: b-movies.gr, impawards.com