Michael Winner’s cool and brutal 1972 action thriller The Mechanic opens with a wordless, 16-minute sequence in which Arthur Bishop (Charles Bronson) meticulously performs a hit from a dingy hotel room. This frontloading of pure action is a palate cleanser, flushing out the gunk accumulated from years of overly wordy cinema and placing Winner’s film alongside Jean-Pierre Melville's austere memorials to morose tough guys.
From here, we delve further into Arthur’s world as he plans his jobs with chess-like precision from his stately but lonesome home in the Hollywood hills. His next assignment puts him in contact with the son of an old friend, a young man named Steve McKenna (Jan Michael Vincent), who seems to share the contract killer’s detached amorality and taste for highly refined violence. “You do this for money?” asks Steve, curious about Arthur’s dark profession. “Money is paid, but that’s not the motive,” Bronson replies, with his inimitable, tight-lipped brusqueness. “It has something to do with standing outside of it all.” Beyond the action and violence of Winner’s existential hitman movie, it’s lines like these, which Bronson delivers with preternatural charisma, that make it so damn exciting.
Thanks to Steve’s unrelenting persistence, and against his better judgement, Arthur takes on the young man as his second gun. But their first job together goes wrong, and Arthur gets into hot water with the syndicate for bringing in “the kid.” In order to make things right, Arthur reluctantly takes on a quick “cowboy job” (a hit without careful planning), which goes about as can be expected.
Winner’s film, dismissed by critics including Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert as a dull collection of stunt work, is ultimately a star vehicle that fits perfectly into a canon of tough guy movies where simply being onscreen is the point. Ebert at least understood the weight of Bronson’s presence, writing, “Bronson is a good movie actor, and he knows how to listen. That's hard; a lot of actors just look like they're waiting for the other guy to stop talking so they can start again.” And because of the preponderance of silence this creates, perfectly anchored by Bronson’s totemic, near-spiritual toughness, The Mechanic achieves something singular — it’s a minimalist film filled with muscle cars, guns, and pyrotechnics.
The Mechanic is streaming on Pluto (free with ads) or available to rent/purchase.