When Charles Bronson died in 2003, I walked out my front door, wandered to a city park, sat on a rusty swing and cried for the first time in eight years. It was a ridiculous and very sincere moment. Though I’d never met him (and he surely would’ve thought I was a sissy for crying), he was my favorite actor. More importantly, he was my hero.
It’s probably downright pathetic that I’d be emotionally impacted by the passing of a complete stranger, and even worse, a celebrity. But Bronson wasn’t a Hollywood figure to me, or even a human. He represented an entire era of entertainers – and men – that were irretrievably vanishing from the earth. Though he was never accused of being a multi-faceted performer, he was so powerfully authentic that his presence was unforgettable.
He was a second generation blue-collar Polish-American coal miner from the middle of nowhere, who’d fought his way to the coast and carved out a career in an industry that had no use for guys like him (he once stated: “My face looks like a rock quarry that’s been dynamited”). Patience, perseverance and a name change from “Buchinsky” to “Bronson” found him moving from lunkhead bit parts in the ‘50s to key supporting roles in the ‘60s to household-name superstardom in the ‘70s.
As his profile reached its apex, Bronson became synonymous with big screen masculinity. He was a rare example of an instant icon; Hollywood producers in the mid-‘70s would allegedly refer to action scripts as “Bronson pictures.” People have dropped casual references to him for generations, and will continue to do so long after his individual movies have gathered dust. A notorious British felon adopted his name and re-immortalized it. Bronson’s concrete features are as recognizable as any handsome leading man’s of the past. He was one of the few actors to become his own genre, and eventually a deity of pure testosterone that still casts an immeasurable shadow over the male half of our species.
But he was still a human. Other two-fisted mortal gods like Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen had fallen before him, and it was naturally inevitable that he’d join their ranks. But when he did, there was more than a sense of loss. There was a gaping vortex, one that had been forming for years but we hadn’t noticed until we were faced with the closing chapter of his legacy. An era of film had died with him, its replacement a decreasingly convincing, semi-digitized, emasculated stew of Stathams, Diesels and Carnahans.
That last blow is of course inspired by Joe Carnahan’s plans to helm a Death Wish remake. I know I’m not alone in my depression over the industry’s countless “reimaginings,” but this particular flub strikes me as particularly crass. Death Wish was THE movie that cemented Bronson’s success with U.S. audiences, and Bronson IS its lead character Paul Kersey, permanently and eternally. No matter who they hire to fill his shoes, it’s like attempting to remake Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure with Russell Brand in the title role.
Carnahan maintains that the film isn’t intended to ape the 1974 vigilante masterpiece, but is instead based on Brian Garfield’s original novel. I’ve read the novel more than once, and all the best segments in it were translated to the screen perfectly by Bronson and director Michael Winner. The movie stuck close to its excellent source material and used it to the best conceivable effect. I can’t imagine what other content they’d mine from it that would compete with the existing movie that’s already the Casablanca of action films.
That being said, it’s not even my favorite Bronson feature. 1972’s The Mechanic is a lean, heartless character study of a master assassin, perfectly paced and underwritten (not a single word is spoken until after the 15 minute mark). Even though it co-stars the often-mocked Jan-Michael Vincent, the film is an untouchable achievement…that was recently mutilated by action leech Jason Statham and aesthetic toddler Simon West. And I can’t imagine that the major studio corpse-fuckers are likely to treat Death Wish with any more respect.
Sour grapes aside, I’d be overjoyed if someone actually could make a modern masculine film as effective as one of the great Bronson movies. I’ve been lucky enough to watch some very worthy contenders, like William Lustig’s 1983 gut-puncher Vigilante and recent Australian indie The Horseman. These are two incredible vengeance films, rich with the specific brand of justice-fueled rage that Bronson popularized. But neither is audacious and/or stupid enough to pretend to be a Bronson movie. Nor did either one come from the studio system. If someone is going to match the intensity and power of Bronson’s ‘70s films, it’s not going to be Carnahan and one of his Beverly Hills buddies, be it Liam Neeson or Frank Grillo or any of today’s crop of JC Penney models-turned-action stars who practice poolside yoga after a vegan breakfast.
Charles Bronson avoided the spotlight. He lived on a secluded ranch in the mountains where he split his own firewood and raised his own children. He drove his own car and always insisted that he pay full price at stores and restaurants. He was a Real Man. He was also the only real Charles Bronson that will ever exist. It’s no surprise when Hollywood check-cashers like Carnahan wipe their asses on our most beloved movies, but some things must remain sacred. If Charles Bronson were alive today, I firmly hope he’d take a coach flight to Hollywood, load a few dozen shotguns and take care of business.