Charles Bronson Cleans Up the Streets of L.A. and Doesn’t Miss a Spot in MURPHY’S LAW

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August 30, 2003 was a day that would live in infamy, but barely anybody realized it.

On the day we lost a god among men, an icon of the silver screen who never got the respect he was owed in his lifetime, who starred in some of the greatest action films of all time but spent most of his later years performing in formulaic entertainment that couldn’t hold a candle to the classics he made in the golden years of his acting career. He should’ve been a star, and for a brief period he was, but that was not to last. Times were changing. The old guard in Tinseltown had been retired. The titans who stood tall on the big screen were put out to pasture by a bunch of slick, manicured pansies who made films based on spreadsheets and audience demographics. One of cinema’s toughest tough guys was tossed aside like yesterday’s couscous and left to fade away with Alzheimer‘s disease, and his death from pneumonia was later overshadowed by that of John Ritter.

Charles Fucking Bronson.

Okay, so his middle name wasn’t Fucking, it was Dennis. He was born Charles Dennis Buchinsky on November 3, 1921 to Lithuanian immigrants. He couldn’t speak a word of English until his teens, he worked as a coal miner after his father died, was the first member of his family to graduate from high school, joined the Air Force and served as an aerial gunner during World War II, and when he moved to Hollywood to pursue an acting career was made to play bit parts alongside Spencer Tracy and Vincent Price. During the Communist witch hunts of the early 50’s he changed his last name to Bronson. He did episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Gunsmoke, and The Twilight Zone. Roger Corman gave Bronson his first lead role in Machine Gun Kelly and he later played a boxing trainer in the Elvis Presley flick Kid Galahad. More TV work followed before Bronson got his big break in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, the first of four classic action films that propelled Charles Bronson to stardom in the 60’s: the others were The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen (my personal favorite Bronson flick), and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. He was an international superstar.

Bronson remained on a roll throughout most of the 1970’s, culminating in what would become his signature role of Paul Kersey, the pacifist-architect turned creep-hunting vigilante in 1974’s Death Wish. That would prove to be the last of the iconic Bronson films. From there he was cast in a variety of westerns and crime dramas usually playing a character out for revenge. Some of them were pretty good but they never hit the heights Bronson’s earlier films had achieved.

Then came the 1980’s, and enter the guys from Cannon.

Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were a pair of freewheeling Israeli movie producers who set their sights on the big time when they purchased the fledgling Cannon Films in the 70’s. Desiring to enter the realm of cinematic respectability they instead spent all their investors’ cash making low-grade action flicks starring the likes of Chuck Norris and tried to make a movie star out of Michael Dudikoff (Remember him?). If they could put it on a poster and pre-sell it at Cannes Golan-Globus (that name sounds like an evil corporation) would make it. They almost got in the business of making crappy movies based on Marvel Comics characters years before someone thought it was a good idea to cast Ben Affleck as Daredevil, but those kinds of movies cost money. A lot of money. Money that Golan-Globus didn’t have when they made Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987 on a budget of Chuck E. Cheese tokens and paid their cast with food stamps.

But they stayed afloat for most of the 80’s thanks to Charles Bronson. Go Long and Globule hitched their starving horse to the Bronson bandwagon and managed to keep the folding chairs in the Cannon office from being repossessed by Goodwill. At Cannon Bronson made three Death Wish sequels (Death Wish 3 was the best) and movies with titles like 10 ’till Midnight, Messenger of Death, and Kinjite. He always played a cop on the edge or a vigilante on the edge. Too bad he never got to make that “grocery store bag boy on the edge” movie.

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Next to Death Wish 3 Bronson’s best Cannon film has to be 1986’s Murphy’s Law, directed by frequent Bronson collaborator J. Lee Thompson. Once again he was in the role of a cop who plays by his own rules (The late, great trailer voiceover guy Don LaFontaine even said so in the movie’s trailer so you know it’s a fact. Besides that who wants to see a movie about a cop who goes by the book?) but this time at least Bronson was headlining a solidly entertaining flick rife with decade-appropriate cheesiness but also loaded with balls-to-the-wall action and a politically-incorrect sense of humor much welcome in an era where the dark forces of good taste continue to tighten their stranglehold over popular culture.

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Jack Murphy (Bronson, obviously) is a veteran Los Angeles police detective who spends his time in a drunken haze when he’s not chasing down criminals. He doesn’t get much respect from his fellow cops, with the exception of his partner. His hot stripper wife Jan (played by Angel Tompkins’ breasts) is divorcing him so she’ll be free to spend more quality time with her sleaze ball boss. To top it all off he gets his car stolen and driven through the front of a diner by a sneering, foul-mouthed punk runaway named Arabella McGee (the eternally adorable Kathleen Wilhoite) at the beginning of the movie. Oh, and I mustn’t forget to mention the fact that calculating psycho bitch Joan Freeman (Carrie Snodgress) is out of prison and about to bring down some Biblical vengeance on those responsible for putting her behind bars, including Jack Murphy. She plans a special revenge for Murphy, framing him for several murders and forcing the gruff flatfoot to team up with the punkette car thief McGee in order to clear his name and catch the real psycho who’s going around bumping off cops, judges, and just about anyone who so much as looks at her the wrong way. The L.A. mob also get involved when Murphy guns down the scumbag pimp brother of boss Frank Vincenzo (Richard Romanus). Naturally all these plot threads will collide like rampaging wildebeests in a final violent showdown. One thing’s for sure though, Jack Murphy has only one law:

“Don’t fuck with Jack Murphy!” (Actual quote from the movie)

Murphy’s Law is one of those movies you can hardly believe ever existed. Sure enough there was a time before Hollywood starting taking the attitude of an unsmiling schoolteacher when it came to the smashing entertainments that built the fucking town. How I pine for the days when you saw more action films that had a major supply of cojones and weren’t afraid to deploy them. Fortunately for a brief while we had the Cannon Group, and when Go-Bot and Globetrotter weren’t cranking out movies that either tried to advance an anti-Palestine agenda or tried to cash on it on a fleeting dance craze (which is almost as bad) they could churn out primo red meat action extravaganzas that at their best were like extended, tequila-loaded vacations in Tijuana for your brain. Best of all they kept my favorite old school Hollywood tough guys like Bronson and Lee Marvin out of the S.A.G. retirement homes as spit-shined pretenders like Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis were pushing them out of the business. Murphy’s Law resides among their better films. This is the kind of movie where an aging cop is chained to a wisecracking teenager whose every other spoken phrase is an insult that could come out of the mouth of a Valley Girl possessed by Satan and forced to make a jailbreak via helicopter only to have their mode of transportation conveniently run of fuel over a marijuana farm. And this is just two minutes of the entire movie.

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We also have an airport shootout, a bodybuilding female villain who has all sorts of killing implements at her disposal, legendary tough guy character actor Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs) as a unscrupulous private eye, several visits to a strip club, rapist pot farmers, cowardly Mob bosses, Italian vendettas, exploding cars, a bathtub drowning followed by a lamp thrown into the tub just in case wasn’t dead enough, and a bloody final showdown in L.A.’s historic Bradbury Building, which was also the setting for the final confrontation between Rick Deckard and Roy Batty in the sci-fi classic Blade Runner. Yeah, Murphy’s Law is one kick-ass flick.

It’s body count is a mere fraction of your average Rambo or Terminator and it’s clichéd as hell but it runs a cool 99 minutes and once it gets going, which is immediately after the Cannon Films logo, it never lets up for a second. J. Lee Thompson, the director whose resume including classic war adventures (The Guns of Navarone), tense thrillers (Cape Fear), and gruesome slasher flicks (Happy Birthday to Me), keeps the action faster and more furious than most Bronson epics with the exception of the immortal Death Wish 3. The cast is uniformly excellent: Big Chuck could play the pissed-off supercop in his sleep and still be better at it than Harrison Ford or Bruce Willis but he’s pretty lively here, alternately cranky and sardonic when dealing with all manners of Angelino human sewage, and the super-cute Kathleen Wilhoite of Private School and Road House delivers mucho sass and humor as Murphy’s unlikely sidekick. Here are some of the more priceless gems of dialogue she gets to deliver in the movie:

“You snot-licking donkey fart!’
“Kiss my panty hose, sperm bank!”
“Hey pubic hair, I’m talking to you!”
“What took you so long, butt crust?”
“Suck a doorknob, you homo!”

A regular San Fernando Don Rickles she is. Wilhoite even gets to sing the end credits title tune.

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Richard Romanus, another veteran character actor who’s been in some of my favorite films such as Mean Streets, The Dion Brothers, and Heavy Metal (he was the voice of Harry Canyon), ably plays the Mafia scum-sucker Vincenzo without hamming it up. He’s not the central villain but he does make for a good sideline adversary. But the real evil here is Carrie Snodgress as the psychotic Joan Freeman. Now making a woman the main heavy of a male-driven action movie could be viewed as sexist but I didn’t see Snodgress’ character as a major setback for feminism. To me she was a disgruntled ex-con with a beef against those who sent her to the slammer and the brains and weaponry to get some hardcore payback.

She was nuts but an effective villain and credit must be given to Snodgress and the filmmakers, including writer Gail Morgan Hickman (whose background is mainly in television shows like Crime Story and The Flash, but he also wrote Death Wish 4: The Crackdown and the second Dirty Harry sequel The Enforcer, which was the only Dirty Harry movie where Harry got a female partner), for making Freeman a real threat, a soulless and single-minded killing machine who could give the Terminator the heebie jeebies. It was cool to see actors like Tierney and Bill Henderson (City Slickers) pop in small roles. And Angel Tompkins has gorgeous breasts, but I wasn’t paying any attention to her performance. Hell I wasn’t even aware she had a face until later in the movie.

Murphy’s Law is a swift, hard-boiled B-movie that’s powered by pure testosterone, not believable for a second but tons of fun if you’re the right frame of mind.

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