The Mechanic first appeared at a time when Bronson was still bigger in Europe than at home, and in some way it seems tailored for a European audience. It's moody, ominous, and patient about getting to the big action scenes. It has that distinctive Seventies feel, that teasing sense that you might get to look at a moral abyss. But it's "the mechanic," the killer of killers, who does the looking for us, and we can feel Bronson flinch. Violence won't make him bat an eye, but in the film's most disquieting scene his would-be protege (Jan-Michael Vincent), the estranged son of a gangster (Keenan Wynn) whom Bronson has just killed, takes him first to a party full of idiot kids whose idea of fun is making crank phone calls, then to his girlfriend's pad. The girlfriend has threatened to kill herself, and Vincent has come to see if she'll follow through on her threat. As Bronson watches with uncomfortable impassiveness, she threatens and Vincent dares until she slits one wrist, then the other. Vincent is unmoved. "If you don't care whether you live or die, why should I?" he asks. She asks Bronson how long she has. He answers as objectively as he can, based on her weight. Time dissolves away. She starts to feel cold and shaky. Will Vincent let her die? He won't, but he won't help her, either. But if she wants to live after all, he offers her car keys so she can drive herself to the ER. She staggers out, and the two men leave a little later.
Charles Bronson sees himself through a glass -- a shop window -- darkly in The Mechanic.
Jan-Michael Vincent goes blithely from his father's funeral to his girlfriend's suicide attempt, with a troubled but taciturn Bronson in tow.
All of this makes The Mechanic one of the grimmest American action films of the Seventies, and the mood takes you by surprise when you're only expecting a violent formula film. Eventually, however, Winner's movie lived up to my original expectations a little too much. For its last half-hour or so much of its sinister tension dissipates as the director focuses on well-staged but routine chase scenes. The mood's nearly broken entirely by a long motorcycle chase that looks for every excuse to stage a sight gag.
Arthur Wilson tries to see himself as a disciplined warrior whose honor resides in his observance of the rules of his trade. It's his own license to kill, one which Steve McKenna doesn't need.
Lewis John Carlino (Crazy Joe, Resurrection, etc.) introduces the inevitable big twist a little too early and a little too implausibly. It seems unlikely after a nearly botched hit on his first outing that the Mob would hire a still-green understudy to take out the master, and the film would have been better off letting us assume that Steve will turn on Wilson and teasing the turn instead of making it obvious. But none of this makes the final act dull, nor does it mar the mood of the great earlier scenes. The first half of The Mechanic deserves a better fulfillment, but the film as a whole deserves a look from any fan of Seventies cinema.
Here's the "Killer of Killers" trailer, deceptively presenting Bronson's character as a vigilante, as uploaded to YouTube by ChopperTCB.