Charles Bronson may not have had the widest acting range of any screen star, but what he did, he did quite well.
He often did it best in the company of action-staple director Michael Winner, and two years before they took their teamwork to its ultimate success with “Death Wish,” they had quite a good prelude with the original 1972 version of “The Mechanic” (streaming on Hulu). The movie takes a no-nonsense approach right up to its ending, which comes as both sudden and entirely appropriate.
The famously weathered-looking Bronson is at his most rugged as veteran hit man Arthur Bishop, who goes about his business silently for roughly the first 10 minutes of the film, establishing him as someone who’s meticulous about his deadly work. One assignment leads him to make the acquaintance of Steve McKenna (Jan-Michael Vincent), a callous young man who’s the son of a Bishop connection (Keenan Wynn) … and who’s also very interested in learning the tricks of the killing trade from Bishop.
Initially reluctant to take on a protege, committed loner Bishop eventually relents, a clever device for screenwriter Lewis John Carlino to let viewers into the assassin’s mind. The result does get a bit philosophical, but never for so long that it brings the stunts and pyrotechnics to an interminable halt. Bronson famously was a man of few words anyway, so the quieter moments in “The Mechanic” (and there really aren’t that many) are measured and acceptable.
As she did in so many Bronson movies, wife Jill Ireland makes an appearance, albeit a brief one as a romantic element of Bishop’s life — though he clearly isn’t one for pitching woo. In a Charles Bronson movie, things like love usually were a quickly traveled off-ramp on the highway of mayhem, and “The Mechanic” reaffirms that.
Jason Statham revived the picture’s core concept in a 2011 remake (and its 2016 sequel), structured around the image he’d built through “The Transporter,” “Crank” and the like. It worked for him in much the same way the first “Mechanic” did for Bronson, winding him up and turning him loose to do what fans already were accustomed to watching him do.
Still, there’s a certain artfulness as filmmaker Winner applies effective cinematography, tight editing and precise movements to a pretty straightforward example of the genre. Bronson may have had bigger hits, but in “The Mechanic,” he used all the tools in his kit, and used them very well indeed.