The Mechanic is one of the most interesting of the movies Charles Bronson did for English director Michael Winner in the 70s. Winner is much reviled and often misunderstood as a director and while The Mechanic is a fine action thriller there’s a lot more going on here.
Arthur Bishop (Bronson) is a hitman. He is a very efficient hitman because he takes infinite pains. His hits are almost works of art. The movie opens with a spell-binding extended sequence in which Bishop stalks and kills one of his targets. Apart from being both tense and fascinating it also tells us a good deal about Arthur Bishop. He is a man of extraordinary patience who plans his work with an attention to detail that is almost pathological.
His work has made him a very rich man. On the surface he is cool and controlled and he enjoys the good things of life - fine wines, good food and art. We soon realise however that he is not a happy man. He suffers from paralysing anxiety attacks. He is lonely and despite his wealth his life is empty.
Then he meets Steve McKenna (Jan-Michael Vincent), the son of gangster Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn). Harry is now deceased. In fact it was Arthur Bishop who killed him. Bishop liked Harry but a job is a job. Steve reacts to his father’s death with indifference. Shortly afterwards Steve’s girlfriend announces that she is going to kill herself. She slahes her wrists. Steve calmly watches as she starts slowly bleeding to death. He knows she won’t go through with it, that she’ll back down at the last minute. Or maybe she won’t. Steve doesn’t care either way.
Bishop realises that Steve has that quality of detachment that he has always strived for, a detachment that makes a man an ideal assassin. He begins to train as his apprentice.
Given that Steve clearly has the potential to be every bit as efficient a killer as Bishop you might wonder whether it’s such a good idea to train a guy who might well end up being your own replacement. Especially given that there’s no pension plan for hitmen. Bishop is undoubtedly aware of this possibility. He’s no fool. He knows that Steve is as ruthless and pitiless as he is. This is in my view the key to the whole movie. By training Steve Bishop is deliberately courting death, or perhaps defying death. Or perhaps he simply wants to find out what will happen, just as Steve watched his girlfriend’s suicide attempt with dispassionate interest.
The essential clue can be found in Bishop’s house, in one of his paintings. It’s one of those late medieval dance of death paintings (by Bosch). And that’s what Arthur Bishop is doing - he is dancing with death because his life has no meaning and it’s the only way he can feel something. Maybe he isn’t actually hoping to die. Maybe he thinks he can find some meaning this way. Or maybe he really is hoping to die. Death may be the only thing Arthur Bishop is capable of loving.
As for Steve, he believes he has the detachment to survive this kind of lifestyle. But then Arthur Bishop thought he had that quality as well. Steve may well be taking his first step toward joining the dance of death.
Meanwhile these two men are both very much aware of the game they are playing. It is a game that must end in death, but which of them will die?
To make this idea work requires some pretty good acting. Charles Bronson delivers the goods. Bronson was one of the great action movie stars but he was always a more subtle and complex actor than he was given credit for. He had the ability to convey a great deal about the characters he played while seeming to be doing very little. I rate this is one of his best performances.
Jan-Michael Vincent is also very good, and rather chilling.
There will of course be those who will insist on seeing a homoerotic subtext in the relationship between the two hitmen. This is I think a complete misunderstanding of the film. It’s made very clear that it’s the father-son dynamic that is important here - the relationships between Bishop and his father, between Steve and his father, and the father-son relationship between Bishop and Steve. These relationships are characterised by a complete lack of emotion, this lack of emotion inevitably creating a sense of emptiness and disconnectedness. These peculiar father-son relationships are also all intimately connected with death. Everything in this movie comes back to death.
The one weak point in the film is the motorcycle chase scene which doesn’t quite work. The tone is wrong - it’s a Bond movie-style action scene but this is not a Bond movie. On the other hand the other major action set-pieces are excellent.
Despite including plenty of action scenes this not really an action movie. Winner throws in the action scenes because in 1972 they were a commercial necessity. The movie is really more of a psychological suspense thriller and Winner handles the suspense superbly while Bronson handles the psychological aspects with equal success.
The MGM Region 1 DVD provides a good anamorphic transfer without any extras. There have been a couple of recent Blu-Ray releases but I haven’t seen them so I can’t offer any opinion on them.
The Mechanic is a chance to see Bronson at the top of his game. A fine and rather complex thriller. Highly recommended.