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An Ideal Partnership - The films of director J. Lee Thompson and actor Charles Bronson - Part 2

Darren Murray
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An Ideal Partnership - The films of director J. Lee Thompson and actor Charles Bronson - Part 2

After working on Caboblanco, Thompson moved onto the slasher genre with Happy Birthday to Me (1981). Whilst by no means the best the genre has to offer, Happy Birthday to Me proved to be an enjoyable horror film, and definitely better than some similar films made in the wake of John Carpenters Halloween (1978).

Between Caboblanco and 10 to Midnight, Bronson kept himself busy, starring in director Peter Hunt’s Death Hunt (1981), which found the actor sharing the screen once again with Lee Marvin, the first time since working together on The Dirty Dozen. Opening to mixed reviews, Death Hunt is still an excellent old style action movie, and one of Bronson’s best later star vehicles.

Death Hunt was followed by Death Wish 2 (1982), which saw Bronson return as architect Paul Kersey, once again out to exact revenge. Death Wish 2 would mark the first Bronson film to be produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, producers that would factor heavily in the later career of the actor.

Golan and Globus would continue to produce starring vehicles for Bronson throughout the majority of the 1980’s under their Cannon company, with 10 to Midnight (1983) being the second of these.

10 to Midnight (1983), like Thompson’s Happy Birthday to Me focuses on a serial killer. Unlike the earlier film, 10 to Midnight combines this with a police procedural, with Bronson as a Cop hunting down the elusive killer.

Originally Bronson was looking at The Evil That Men Do (1984) as being his next feature, as he had bought the rights to the novel along with producer Pancho Kohner. When Cannon head Menahem Golan decided that the film would have been too expensive to produce at the time, they forged ahead with another script they held, “Bloody Sunday”.

A visit to the Cannes film festival had been set up, so Kohner came up with the title 10 to Midnight, without an actual script in mind. They then changed the title of “Bloody Sunday”. This is the reason the title 10 to Midnight has almost no bearing on the plot of the film.

Not exactly classic Bronson fare, 10 to Midnight was a major improvement on his and Thompson’s previous venture, with enough suspense and thrills to keep Bronson fans happy.

Thompson keeps the pace moving along with the film getting increasingly violent as it progresses, with no shortage of blood and nudity. As the norm for the director’s work, 10 to Midnight is professionally made, but is far removed from the rather tame standards of his earlier successes such as Cape Fear, which ironically enough was controversial at the time of its release. 

The plot of the film concerns Bronson and his partner’s attempts to track down a serial killer, who murders his victims whilst naked so that he doesn’t leave any evidence. The film takes place a number of years before DNA testing became standard.

It turns out that one of the killers’ victims was a childhood friend of Bronson’s daughter, which leads to Bronson illegally planting evidence to capture the killer. With the killer getting released on a technicality, he ends up on the trail of Bronson’s daughter. 

Bronson is once again on form, being his usual reliable self. The only noticeable difference from other Bronson performances was the actor’s decision to have plastic surgery before production, apparently to make him look younger. Bronson was in his early sixties at the time of production.

Supporting player Andrew Stevens works well with Bronson, playing his inexperienced partner. He also strikes up flirtatious relationship with Bronson’s daughter played by Lisa Eilbacher.

This was the second film Stevens starred in that had Bronson in the lead. He had co-starred with him in the earlier Death Hunt, but never really got a chance to share the screen with him during the film. Here, the majority of his scenes are with Bronson.

Stevens had additionally worked with J. Lee Thompson on the television show Code Red (1981), where Thompson had directed the pilot episode.

The other main character of the film is the killer himself, memorably played by Gene Davis. Davis is probably better known as the brother of Midnight Express (1978) actor Brad Davis than from his film roles.

Davis clearly doesn’t have the same level of talent as his brother, but does well here, in what was his most notable role. He is suitably intense throughout and fearlessly spends a lot of the film naked, although some continuity mistakes show him wearing underwear in certain shots.

Davis’ part is clearly modelled on real life serial killer Ted Bundy, with them being handsome, going after the same type of victims and even driving the same kind of car. 

In addition to the main roles, there are notable supporting parts for the likes of Geoffrey Lewis and Wilford Brimley, with Brimley having worked with Bronson on the previous Borderline.

Also look out for an early appearance from Kelly Preston as one of Davis’ unfortunate victims. Preston was still being credited under the name Kelly Palzis at the time.

10 to Midnight marked the first film of J.Lee Thompson’s to be solely edited by his son Peter Lee-Thompson. He had previously worked as an assistant editor on Cabo Blanco. He would continue to edit the majority of his Fathers films throughout the 1980’s as well as working on another Cannon production, American Ninja (1985).

As expected, 10 to Midnight received generally negative reviews, with famed film critic Roger Ebert giving it the ridiculous rating of zero stars. The film has since gained a deserved cult following, with most recognising its exploitation movie style charms.

After Bronson having to change his earlier plans to make The Evil That Men Do, both Bronson and Thompson would finally come to make it the year after 10 to Midnight. Initially the film was to be another in Bronson’s line of Cannon produced features, but it eventually was produced by ITC and released by TriStar.

Anyone turned off by the violence in Bronson and Thompson’s previous collaboration should give The Evil That Men Do a miss, as it is even more extreme.

The film showed that Thompson hadn’t lost his knack with action, and whilst not as action packed as expected, the film still has a fair number of well executed sequences, each one as violent as the next.

Fans of Bronson’s Death Wish character would enjoy his character here as he is much in the same vein, with Bronson once again seeking vengeance. His character this time is a retired assassin, brought out of retirement to kill a deranged doctor, who had murdered his friend.

Bronson gets multiple chances throughout to employ his brand of justice, with the film being filled with imaginative death scenes.

Irish actor Joseph Maher makes for a gleefully sadistic villain, one who the audience won’t be able to wait to get his comeuppance. The remainder of the cast are made up of the likes of Theresa Saldana, John Glover and Jose Ferrer, although their screen time is variably limited in comparison to the film’s star.

The Evil That Men Do was adapted from the novel of the same name, which was written by author R. Lance Hill. As part of the Hill’s contract, he was allowed to pen the first draft of the screenplay, which he did under the pseudonym David Lee Henry.

Apparently the producers didn’t feel that Hill’s script was suitable, as writer John Crowther was brought on board to create a new draft of the script, excising most of Hill’s material. It is only due to Hill’s contract that his pseudonym David Lee Henry remains on the films credits.

Upon the film’s release in the UK, the BBFC cut the film by 52 seconds, with further cuts being made when released on video. The majority of the cuts were for violence, with them being re-instated for the 2007 DVD release.

Unlike 10 to Midnight, The Evil That Men Do actually had some positive reviews, with critics recognising that the film gave audiences what they wanted, although they still underlined that the film was excessively violent and sadistic.

Both Bronson and Thompson followed up The Evil That Men Do with further Cannon productions. For Thompson, it was political thriller The Ambassador (1984), loosely based on the Elmore Leonard Novel 52 Pick Up.

The Ambassador is notable for being Rock Hudson’s final cinematic appearance before his untimely death. Cannon pictures would later make a more faithful version of the novel with John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick Up (1986).  

Thompson would follow The Ambassador with Kings Solomon’s Mines (1985), starring Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone. Clearly made to cash in to the popular Indiana Jones series, the film is better than its critical failure suggests, with some good action and a genuine sense of fun being points in its favour. The same can’t be said for its sequel, Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1987), which J. Lee Thompson thankfully passed on.

In regards to Bronson, he would return once again as Paul Kersey in Death Wish 3 (1985), which marked the final time he and director Michael Winner would work together. Extremely over the top in comparison to the first two films, Death Wish 3 could be viewed as almost a parody of the vigilante genre. The fact that it is probably the most fun of the series is an accidental by-product.

After a two year break, both Thompson and Bronson would combine their talents again on crime thriller Murphy’s Law (1986). Even with certain drawbacks, Murphy’s Law is one of the better collaborations from Bronson and Thompson.

The plot concerns a crazed killer (Carrie Snodgress) who sets Bronson up for the murder of his ex wife. Bronson ends up arrested and handcuffed to petty criminal Kathleen Wilhoite. He is forced to go on the run to clear his name, with the handcuffed Wilhoite along for the ride.

Featuring the usual staples of sex and violence that had become prevalent in Bronson’s 1980’s output, Murphy’s Law still manages to be more light-hearted than his last few films made with Thompson, with some good one liners between him and Wilhoite and some slight variations of the typical Bronson character.

Another unusual aspect of the film is the main villain being a woman, with Snodgress proving to be quite deranged as the film progresses and really putting Bronson through his paces. As well as having Snodgress to contend with, Bronson has to deal with cops on his trail as well as a vengeful mob boss.

Co-star Kathleen Wilhoite works well alongside Bronson, but the hint of a romantic relationship between the two towards the end of the film feels wrong due to the apparent age difference.

As usual Thompson handles the on screen drama well, giving the film an overall professional look. There is less action than expected, but this could have more to do with Bronson’s age, with the actor being around 65 at the time of the film’s production.

What action there is, is well handled, especially the finale which takes place in the Bradbury Building, most famously used in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Not as memorable as that film, the production still uses the location to its advantage.

The script was the work of writer Gail Morgan Hickman, who has mostly worked in television throughout his prolific career. He gives the script enough small touches to make it stand out from typical Charles Bronson fare, with Bronson’s character struggling with alcoholism and the fact that his ex-wife would rather be a stripper than be with him.

Par for the course, Murphy’s Law opened to the expected poor reviews, with it only really finding its audience amongst Bronson fans. The one thing a lot of critics did agree upon was the fact that the film was never boring.

1986 was quite a busy year for both Bronson and Thompson. After the production of Murphy’s Law, Bronson went on to star in television movie Act of Vengeance (1986).

Directed by John Mackenzie of The Long Good Friday (1980) fame and based on the United Mine Workers presidential elections of 1969, it gave Bronson his finest acting role of the decade as well as featuring sterling support from Ellen Burstyn and an early role for Keanu Reeves.

Unfortunately, Bronson followed up his excellent work on this with the ill-advised Assassination (1987), which found him working with director Peter Hunt for the first time since Death Hunt. It also featured Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland in what was her second to last film role, and the last time she and Bronson would work together.

Thompson on the other hand went on to direct Firewalker (1986), another action adventure in the same vein as his earlier King Solomon’s Mines. Unlike his earlier film, there isn’t much merit to Firewalker other than a decent supporting turn from Lou Gossett Jr.

By the time Thompson and Bronson came to work on Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987), Production Company Cannon Films were going through a great deal of financial problems at the time, which resulted in this fourth part of the series being considerably lower budget than the previous entries in the series.

In addition to this, Death Wish 4 was the first entry in the series not to be directed by Michael Winner. Apparently Bronson wasn’t happy with Death Wish 3, partly due to Winner’s inclusion of additional violence unbeknownst to the actor. This resulted in Winner turning down the chance to direct the sequel and going on to make another Cannon production, Appointment with Death (1988).

Along with his producer/agent Pancho Kohner, Bronson decided to bring Thompson on board, as he had continued to work well with the director. Considering the lower budget, Death Wish 4 manages to look more expensive and professional film than its predecessor, with it clearly being the best of the series’ sequels, although part 3 is still a more enjoyable film to watch.

Once again Paul Kersey manages to be the unluckiest man around, with him getting revenge on drug dealers after the untimely death of his girlfriend’s daughter. He comes into contact with a publisher, who likewise lost his daughter to drugs.

The publisher, played by the great John P Ryan, supplies Kersey with the information and the means to get rid of the drug dealers that supplied his girlfriends daughter with drugs. It’s only after working his way through the various dealers that Kersey realises that he has been used as a pawn to get rid of the competition.

This isn’t exactly Bronson’s finest acting achievement, with him clearly going through the motions at this point. The Kersey role doesn’t exactly give Bronson much chance to stretch himself as an actor, only calling for him to act angry throughout. He is still professional enough to put in a decent performance, with him doing as much of the action as possible, even though it is apparent that a double was used for parts of the film.

The beautiful Kay Lenz shows up as Bronson’s much younger girlfriend, but gets next too nothing to do, with a large stretch of the film forgetting her completely.

Acting honours go to John P Ryan, who ends up being the main villain of the film. The only issue with his character is that because he’s played by Ryan, there is no real surprise when his true intentions are revealed. Ryan, like Bronson, had made previous movies with Cannon Films, with him having roles in Runaway Train (1985) and Avenging Force (1986).

The film went through a number of scripts before settling on what was used in the finished film. Alternative versions of the film had Kersey reunited with Jill Ireland’s character from the second film as well as another version having Kersey taking on terrorists.

Finally, the producers went with a script by Gail Morgan Hickman, who had written Murphy’s Law the year before for Cannon Films. It is down to Hickman that the main storyline varies from other Death Wish films, with the writer being more influenced by the Likes of Yojimbo (1961). Like that film, Death Wish 4 has the main protagonist setting two rival gangs against each other.

Hickman has since commented that he knew exactly what Cannon Films were looking for and this is why his script was filled with cartoonish action scenes. However Hickman still found himself constantly rewriting dialogue and action scenes upon the request of Bronson.

Unlike other entries in the series, Death Wish 4 opened to some positive reviews; with most realising that it was a solid B movie exploitation movie. Death Wish 4 would go on to become the best selling entry of the series when released on the video market.

Death Wish 4 has the distinction of being the only film in the franchise to be remade, albeit unofficially. Bollywood movie Mohra (1994) takes the basis of the plot but goes in a different direction than the original.

Bronson and Thompson next venture would be a change of Pace. Messenger of Death (1988) was a loosely based adaptation of the novel Avenging Angel from writer Rex Burns. In certain areas, the film is also called Avenging Angel.

The only real drawback is the film’s unfortunate title, with it looking as if Bronson is the Messenger of Death. Instead Bronson gets to move away from his usual lone cops and vigilante’s, with him playing a veteran reporter. He is looking into a family massacre in Colorado, which the local police believe to be religiously motivated.

After Bronson further investigates, he finds that it may be part of conspiracy by a water company to start a family feud between Mormons, so that they can come in and take their land. 

Director Thompson directs the film in a no nonsense manner, keeping the pace of the film quickly moving along. More of a thriller than an action movie, there is still some shocking violence, especially the massacre at the opening of the film. As well as this, there is a well handled car/truck chase that keeps things exciting.

Due to ill health, Thompson wasn’t able to complete the film, with assistant director Robert C Ortwin Jr having to take over. Ortwin Jr was a regular assistant director for Cannon Films, having worked on the likes of Murphy’s Law, Assassination and Death Wish 4.  

The film is given extra production value with its use of the beautiful Colorado scenery, making Messenger of Death stand out from other Bronson films of the decade.

Although the completed film isn’t as enjoyable as Death Wish 4, Bronson does give a much better performance. Perhaps the change of pace and the change of role gave the actor some needed encouragement.

Bronson does get involved in some action in the film, such as the aforementioned car chase and the like, but it is far removed from the likes of Death Wish. Bronson doesn’t even kill anyone in the whole movie.

He is supported in his quest for the truth by local editor, well played by Trish Van Devere, with her being the only main female role in the film.

There are small roles for the likes of Daniel Benzali, John Ireland and also Gene Davis, with this being the first time he had worked with Bronson and Thompson since 10 to Midnight.

The screenplay was the final work of Paul Jarrico, with him creating one of the better written scripts of Bronson’s late 1980’s career. The script takes quite a number of liberties from the source material, with the completed film having almost no connection to Rex Burns novel.

Jarrico’s career goes back to the late 1930’s, but a great deal of his work went un-credited or credited under a pseudonym due to him being blacklisted during the McCarthy witch-hunts.

Bronson and Thompson would follow up Messenger of Death with Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989), an extremely sleazy crime thriller, more akin to the works of Michael Winner than J.Lee Thompson.

The plot is based around a Japanese businessman, who ends up molesting a young girl he spots on the train. After this the businessman’s own daughter goes missing, with her ending up part of a teenage prostitution ring. A Vice Cop, played by Charles Bronson, is appointed to find the man’s daughter. Unfortunately, the Vice Cop’s daughter is who the businessman molested on the train. 

Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects would prove to be one of the lower points of J.Lee Thompson’s career. Whilst competently made, the film is tonally all over the place, with certain scenes being made to titillate or shock in equal measure, whilst others are sometimes played for laughs. Even the last scene has a character getting raped whilst Bronson smiles at the camera. It is unclear if the audience should be shocked or cheering at this character getting his comeuppance.

At least Thompson still manages to make the film look good, with it being shot in that style that only films from the 1980’s seem to have. There are also some well done action scenes throughout the film, even if it is painfully obvious Bronson is doubled during the majority of them.

By this point in his career, it was apparent that Charles Bronson was too long in the tooth for these types of roles. Critics had even commented at the time that he was too old to be playing a serving detective. He is decent enough, and does what he can with the role, but it is clear that his best years were behind him.

Other than Bronson, the supporting roles are mainly underwritten with Peggy Lipton playing a typical wife role and Juan Fernandez as a stereotypical villain.

There is also James Pax, who plays the businessman whose daughter is kidnapped. Pax actually gets slightly more to do than some of his other co-stars, with him getting increasingly nervous as the film progresses in case what he has done is found out. Pax is probably best known to audiences as Lightning from Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Screenwriter Harold Nebenzal only worked on a handful of films as a scriptwriter, with only the earlier The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) being a standout. He was better known as a producer, working on such films as M (1951) and Cabaret (1972).

His script is partly responsible for the tonal shifts in the film, with certain plot points in the film being forgotten about as it progresses. Even the molesting of Bronson’s daughter isn’t dealt with as expected.

Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects was the “last” for a lot of people involved. It marked the final film to be directed by Thompson, with him retiring thereafter. It also marked the final film Pancho Kohner produced that starred Charles Bronson. The two had worked together since 1976 with St Ives.

In addition, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects was the final film Bronson made for Cannon Films, although he did work with Menahem Golan some years later on Death Wish 5: The Face of Death (1994), which Golan produced.

Thankfully Bronson was able to follow up Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects with a supporting role in The Indian Runner (1990), which marked Sean Penn’s directorial debut. Although he has limited screen time, his performance was greeted with praise, with a number of critics surprised by the quality of his acting.

The aforementioned Death Wish 5 was Bronson’s final cinema release. He followed them up with the Family of Cops series of television movies, with the last entry, Family of Cops 3 (1999) being his final film.

In his later years, Bronson suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, as well as having a number of other health issues like lung cancer. He passed away in 2003 at the age of 81.     

His colleague J. Lee Thompson passed away the year before of congestive heart failure. He was 88 years old at the time.   

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CannonCharles BronsonDeath WishGolan GlobusJ. Lee ThompsonMessenger of DeathPancho KohnerThe Evil That Men Do