Saturday, July 30, 2016

In short: Messenger of Death (1988)

Denver, Colorado. The family – wives and children all - of Orville Beecham (Charles Dierkop), member of a Mormon splinter sect who think Utah-style Mormonism is just too gosh darn modern, is murdered by a shadowy figure with a shotgun. The police as represented by Chief Barney Doyle (Daniel Benzali) haven’t got a clue beyond putting Orville in custody for a time.

Fortunately, experienced, public-minded - and as it will later turn out two-fisted - reporter Garret “Gar” Smith (Charles Bronson) takes an interest in the case. At first, his investigation points in the direction of a religious feud between Orville’s father Willis (Jeff Corey) and Willis’s brother Zenas (John Ireland). At least, these two guys loather each other so much they believe the other responsible for the murders; and seeing that their respective – hopefully fictitious - versions of Mormonism put a heavy emphasis on smiting evildoers violently to save their souls, Gar suspects there just might be a bloodbath in the making. Quite unlike most other Bronson characters, Gar is set against this sort of thing and does his best to prevent further violence. He’s particularly keen because he suspects somebody else is using the family problems for their own nefarious plans. Hint to other potential conspirators: don’t repeatedly send your own company water trucks to murder a journalist, especially not one played by Charles Bronson.

For the standards of a late-period Bronson movie, Messenger of Death is strikingly original. Not only isn’t our hero a crazed vigilante, he also isn’t killing anyone at all during the course of the film. The film’s first half or so even sees our hero putting all of his effort into understanding a situation to prevent further bloodshed! Basically, this is bizarro Bronson land where everything you thought was true about Bronson characters is wrong.

If you’ve watched enough Cannon era Bronson, this J. Lee Thompson film is a bit of an oasis of sanity, with Bronson presenting a laidback confidence that makes Gar actually rather likeable, even suggesting a degree of personhood. He even seems mildly shaken up by violence. And while the conspiracy plot makes only a tiny amount of sense, it does so in low-key conspiracy thriller way instead of your usual Cannon craziness, certainly making the film less uproariously entertaining than the norm but providing a more human-sized kind of thriller that has its own charms.

As a director, Thompson seems rather more at home here than in Death Wish land. He’s not turning out a particularly energetic film (though there are two fine action scenes and a handful of solid suspense sequences in the movie), but there’s a relaxed rhythm to his work here that fits Bronson’s performance. Messenger of Death feels like two elderly gentlemen who know each other’s strengths and weaknesses quite well are making a somewhat friendlier film than anything they’ve done in quite some time, and enjoying themselves doing it.

As an admirer of the Thompson/Bronson films, I’m pretty happy about this.

No comments: