Sunday, July 13, 2014

THE MECHANIC: Blu-ray (UA 1972) Twilight Time

Getting to the heart of a cold-blooded killer seems like a contradiction in terms. Such is the woefully misguided ambition of Michael Winner’s The Mechanic (1972); a meandering mix of truncated action sequences, clumsily stitching together its underlay of ersatz homoerotic melodrama. Alas, the picture waffles on almost every point, and, to the point of abject tedium. Costars Charles Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent have precious little to say to one another that doesn’t begin with a doleful gaze in Lewis John Carlino’s hokey-jokey screenplay and ends with a hum and a ha – also a half-cackle and ‘I told you so.’ Plus a thud, as Bronson’s aging ‘mechanic’, Arthur Bishop, tries to figure out what makes his new protégée tick; Jan-Michael Vincent flatly mimicking a ruthlessly disingenuous, empathetic-less and utterly charm free, Steve McKenna.
Actually, it isn’t all that hard to figure out. Steve’s a psychopath with latent homosexual tendencies, falling in love with the mentor he’s presumably been assigned to liquidate by the same omnipotent international organization employing Arthur. Paid assassins is a young man’s game; the old dog unable to learn these new tricks, even as he continues to rely on an ever-revolving pharmaceutical grab bag of goodies to deaden his anxieties while he trains like a Ninja to keep his proto-killer instincts at optimal levels. None of it works, chiefly because Carlino’s screenplay can never quite decide in which direction it’s headed. As a result, it spreads out from some multi-pointed middle of contrivances; the core of the piece eroded – or rather, absent – replaced by a series of vignettes that neither come together as a whole nor seem to feed into the central narrative about these two like-minded eradicators of human life, figuratively comparing their Johnsons by the size of their pistols.
About eleven minutes into The Mechanic I had to keep reminding myself I was supposed to be enjoying it; as a devotee of Charles Bronson and marginally in awe of Winner’s Death Wish (1974), The Sentinel (1977) and Appointment with Death (1988). Regrettably, The Mechanic isn’t in this league.  With its tri-panel poster art illustrating daring motorcycle and boat races, and a ‘Thunderball-inspired’ scuba-diving sequence that I must have slept through, because it isn’t in the final cut (a brief wet-suited leisurely swim is about all we get), the artwork for The Mechanic implies a big budget James Bond-ian adventure with Bronson’s unflinching man of few words annihilating the bad guys in his usual inimitable brand of gutsy style.
What we get instead is an unevenly paced introspective look inside the head of an old-time executioner who’s about to experience his own ‘forced retirement’ in a business that marks one’s emeritus years with either a car bomb or a bullet between the eyes. But Winner’s commentary on seriously flawed human relationships and sexual manipulations never takes flight; Bronson’s Arthur Bishop increasingly marginalized at the expense of re-introducing Jan-Michael Vincent to the big screen; this time, as the heir apparent to Bronson’s mantel of quality. The problem is Vincent can’t carry the load; his pre-teen career as a B-grade TV actor eventually graduating to moon-doggie status; the teen and early twenty-something pinup/heartthrob for that certain 70’s ilk of lanky, hairless blonde surfer dudes who seemed like the epitome of masculine chic back then, but now register as more a transitional phase in Hollywood’s re-masculinization of the male hero; rippling pecs and arms built like tree trunks having replaced the desired résumé and calling card for that proverbial fifteen minutes of fame.   
As far as I can gather, The Mechanic was supposed to be a story about this younger man’s heightened infatuation with his fading idol; the only possible way he can achieve his level of success, by destroying the man he presumably loves. There could have been a tantalizing edge to this scenario. We do, in fact, see flashes of Vincent’s disreputably slick rich kid desiring more than just Bronson’s position within this monolithic organization. 
Bronson too gives us telling glances; a soft visual caress of Vincent’s tightly packaged musculature in the prerequisite shirtless scene; not unlike the hard sinewy mass Bronson used to sport in his younger years. Remember him from The Great Escape (1963) or even as the gooney mute in House of Wax (1953)? He’s nothing but muscle; angular, taut and flexing. Bronson in The Mechanic is an entirely different animal – one, alas, past his physical prime; his face wrinkled up like a shar pei puppy, his brittle black mane salt and peppered and loosely dangling in front of those deeply sunken eyes in very real danger of being swallowed up by the avalanche of folding skin off his cascading brow.
If I seem to be dwelling on the physicality of both actors herein, its’ because The Mechanic makes a glaring point to draw our attention to both men’s rugged builds and the warring contradiction over who will survive this contest of wills. The so-called ‘twist’ ending – where neither Arthur nor Steve gets away with their lives – deflates this non-stop, though tragically extraneous somatic spectacle. Worse, the banality of Lewis John Carlino’s script wears down both their characterizations and the action sequences with pointless bits of sadism and some really remedial dialogue any first year college kid with scriptwriting software could have written at a passing glance. Carlino had, in fact, hoped to plump up the homosexual edge in this story. Reportedly, Winner had a great deal of difficulty getting any A-list actors like George C. Scott to commit to the project precisely because of its ‘touchy-feely, hey sailor!, man on man’ inferences.
Bronson’s careworn tough guy is incapable of communicating as much. So, we’re left to read something more into Jan-Michael Vincent’s deviously twinkling eyes and sly toothy grins; his dragging Arthur to the candle-lit and incense-burning bungalow of Louise (Linda Ridgeway) so he can prove to him his own dalliances with this vacuous vixen (who flashes us her perky bosom before slashing her wrists with a razorblade) was just a way to pass the time until something better – namely Arthur – came along. Neither man is particularly interested in whether this girl lives or dies; Steve tossing Louise the keys to her car after she’s already begun to succumb to the hallucinatory aftereffects of losing too much blood, suggesting if she drives ‘real fast’ she can still make it to the local police station to save her life. What a prince!
Carlino’s screenplay gives us the flipside to Steve’s callous behavior when we meet ‘the girl’ (Jill Ireland), who upon opening the door to her fashionable spread and finding Arthur standing on the other side, ravages him with wet, steamy kisses and platitudes of love; reading a letter she wrote, attesting to her unquenchable depths of grand amour. It’s only after the deed is done – in typical Hollywood fashion (playing it safe with a cutaway to post-coital tie-straightening and the girl lying on her fulsome front, naked back exposed to the camera) - that we discover she isn’t Arthur’s great love at all; rather a high-priced call girl who specializes in finding new ways to yank the cranks of her clientele. Arthur tells her, the letter was a nice touch and she promises to find something else to arouse him the next time he comes by to toss a few extra dollars on her bureau. Again, some of this might have worked within the milieu of that morally bankrupted, distasteful sexual ennui that was 70’s cinema.  But alas, Carlino’s screenplay never brings us back to any of it. There are no reoccurring characters except for Arthur and Steve: two lone wolves operating on the fringe. 
The Mechanic opens with nearly fifteen minutes of non-dialogue driven narrative; a pantomime, as Arthur Bishop sets up shop with a telescopic lens across the street from an old man (Patrick O'Moore) whose number has just come up. Art takes a few quick snapshots of the layout of the old man’s apartment; a dingy one room walkup – the stove, some books on a rickety shelf and teabags. Contrast this with Arthur’s plush digs; an isolated Nuevo-inspired Greenpeace oasis, complete with indoor pool and potted palms; California chic, back in the seventies. In his red bathrobe, Art pours over the dossier of his latest victim; a cryptic phone call telling him to proceed as planned. So, the next afternoon Art waits for the old guy to leave his apartment before picking the lock and sneaking inside. We see him replace the tea bags with others laced in a strong narcotic; applying some slow dissolving plastics to gradually extinguish the flame inside the gas stove, and slapping some fairly gooey C-4 between the pages of one of the books on the shelf. Now, we wait…and wait. Honestly, if this is the modus operandi of a savvy hit man, it must come from the narcoleptic’s handbook on how to kill your enemy, because the scenario just drags on and on.
The old man returns to his apartment, lights his stove, drinks his tea and falls unconscious on his bed. Time passes – again; Arthur, seated with a high-powered rifle in his rented room across the street, waits for the cover of night. In the meantime, the dissolving plastic inside the stove extinguishes the pilot light, the apartment filling with gas. Finally, Art takes dead aim at the book he’s stuffed full of C-4; the combustible material mixing with a room full of noxious vapors to create a world-class boom and hellish inferno.
It’s fairly obvious director, Michael Winner is reveling in this meticulous setup of the first kill. The more important question remains, to what purpose? Arthur’s vanity, perhaps?  Because if murdering the old man were the only objective then Art could have merely spiked his tea with Drain-o or arsenic; or taken his pot shot through the open window, not at the plastered pages of plastic explosives, but at the old man himself; or he could have merely broken into the apartment and waited for his return with a silencer. But no – we get intrigues aplenty instead, and far less intriguing than planned.  Why this kill should warrant such a laborious lay of the land when none of the other more moneyed hits rate as much remains a mystery in Carlino’s screenplay.
Arthur turns up at the wealthy seaside digs of Big Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn); a friend of his late father, who nervously wonders what the organization is up to. After all, they won’t return any of Harry’s calls. Uh…oh. Smells like trouble/sounds like death – and it is. We are briefly introduced to Harry’s twenty-something kid, Steve, who goads his old man into giving him a thousand. Steve’s the poster child for what’s wrong with seventies youth: no initiative, minimal responsibility and fairly insulting to his elders as he openly humiliates his old man in front of Arthur, making light of their father/son relationship. It’s a nonstarter for both Jan-Michael Vincent’s introduction; also in establishing the longevity of Art and Harry’s past; the old boy offering Art a drink, but never pouring out; Art listening to a banal recollection from Harry about the time his old man tossed Art into a cold lake, waiting for him to either learn how to swim or drown. Ah me…those happy childhood memories! How they warm the heart…not!
Now, Arthur gets the call: his next hit is…oops - Harry.  He tackles the assignment with the same disassociation, tacking Harry’s dossier and picture to the peg board in his living room and waiting for the phone call to proceed. This time, the setup is less elaborate; Art lying to Harry about the organization wanting to meet and discuss his future at a remote beachfront location in the dead of night. Oh yeah, like a big operator like Big Harry wouldn’t see this one coming a mile away. And, predictably, he doesn’t; walking the length of sandy embankment only to have Art take a few potshots that deliberately miss him but nevertheless frighten the hell out of Harry. Encouraging Harry to run for his life (it’s a setup, you moron) the old codger battles a weak ticker as he bolts towards the car, puffing and wheezing all the way, collapsing in the passenger seat before figuring out he’s about to die. “Finish it,” Harry orders Art.
Cut to Harry’s funeral: Steve about as remorseful or engaged in the ritual of his father’s burial as flicking lint from his navel. (Perhaps he has an outie.) Instead, he takes the opportunity to unapologetically chat up Arthur, goading him to divulge what ‘business’ both he and Harry were involved in. Steve doesn’t give a hoot who killed dear old dad; only, that he’s inherited those plush familial digs, presently being trashed by his ridiculous ensemble of fair-weather friends who are in the process of drinking themselves into oblivion, shooting up in the bathroom, having laissez faire unprotected sex in every bedroom, and, placing long distance crank calls to Singapore. “My father never cared for my friends,” Steve admits with a bizarre tinge of disgust as he leads Art past this mindlessly staged and pointlessly scripted revelry, “I’m beginning to think, neither do I.”
We get a flash of Jan-Michael Vincent’s genuine appeal; his pre-requisite ‘look at my torso, isn’t it fabulous?’ thoroughly needless change of clothes from one ugly shirt to another, before receiving an embittered phone call from the love-starved tart, Louise, threatening suicide. The pair toddles off to Louise’s bungalow – a sort of mystic guru retreat meets the bamboo hut from Disneyland’s Tiki-Tiki Room attraction. Both Steve and Arthur quietly observe as Louise makes good on her promise to slash her wrists; Arthur callously informing her how long it will take to bleed out; also explaining the various stages her body will go through before she expires. Steve is even more maliciously cruel; telling Louise he’s never been all that interested in her other than during those few brief interludes where they bumped uglies. After an hour or so of getting woozy, Louise elects to save herself. After all, no one else in this room is about to do it for her. Again, not quite sure what the point of this vignette is, except to illustrate how grotesquely unsympathetic both men are. Alas, that point has already been made and we’ve now effectively wasted four and a half more minutes of the movie’s run time reiterating the obvious. Ho-hum; the beat goes on.
The next day, while perusing the aquarium, Art suffers a panic attack – or perhaps, it’s a heart attack; the attending physician is not very interested in getting to the bottom of things, rather kissing off Art with a prescription for sedatives he quickly discards in the waste basket before returning home to chug a few more of his choice tranquilizers. We move on to the male-bonding portion of our story – also foreshadowing; Arthur taking Steve to a grudge match between an old Japanese karate master, Yamoto (Takayuki Kubota) and the much younger, Kori (Hank Hamilton) who fancies himself his valiant successor. The match illustrates – at least for the audience - how youth and ego are poor substitutes for sage wisdom and experience; Yamoto fairly wiping the matt with his bloodied opponent. Bishop tries to impart a little wisdom on his protégé; that every person has a weakness and, once discovered, it can be exploited to the hit man’s advantage. A short while later, Arthur decides to bring Steve along on his next assignment, so non-descript that he is referenced as ‘1st hippie on IMDB (played with equal forgetfulness by Kenneth Wolger).
Disguised as a Chickin’ Lickin’ delivery boy (the real driver, stuntman, Ernie F. Orsatti, quickly dispatched, having his neck snapped by Arthur), Steve enters the estate with Arthur close behind; the pair surprising 1st Hippie’s bodyguard and pursuing their target on motor-cross bikes down steep inclines near Malibu. Along the way, they take out a few shrubs, frighten a few legitimate motorists driving brightly colored vintage 60’s automobiles, who predictably get involved in a smash up, before even more predictably decimating a cultured garden party at the neighbors already in full swing. Art pursues his target to the edge of a steep cliff, 1st Hippie losing control and driving over the edge; instantly killed in a hellish fireball when he and his bike make contact with the distant ground below. Mission accomplished, though nevertheless quite bungled; attracting the undue attention of Arthur’s boss (Enzio Fiermonte), who informs him the organization is not pleased he has allow Steve into their secret society without their authorization. Art assumes complete responsibility for Steve and assures such sloppy work will not happen again. He is given a rush job assignment; a matter of some urgency in Italy.
Hurrying to McKenna’s estate to collect Steve for the trip, Art is shocked to discover a dossier on him neatly tucked inside the top drawer of Steve’s desk. (Just how he knows to look for it there is another matter.) It is exactly like the ones Arthur is used to getting to mark his intended victims; suggesting the organization has already taken a hit on him and is using Steve to carry it out. Nevertheless, Art shrugs off this discovery and takes Steve to Italy. The pair quickly realizes, once they’ve wet-suited up and swam to a waiting yacht, both have been framed by the organization in an ambush.  In short order, this action-packed duo dispatches their killers on a remote highway, Art tossing one of the getaway cars off a steep precipice. Unscathed and riding high on their own testosterone; Arthur and Steve return to their hotel room and prepare to celebrate their victory with a bottle of wine. Alas, Steve has laced Art’s glass with brucine, a colorless, but lethal alkaloid.
Gasping for air, Art makes his final inquiry; whether Steve has poisoned him to avenge his own father’s murder. Art is in for a very rude awakening: Steve admitting he knew nothing about Art killing Harry and furthermore, that it really doesn’t make a difference. His assassination of the old pro has been predicated on nothing better than his own vindictive and greedy aspiration to better and replace his mentor – beating the old dog with his new tricks. The organization never hired Steve to kill Art: he did this one as a freebee for himself. “Everyone has a jelly spot” Steve reminds Art just before he dies, “yours was you couldn't cut it alone!”
The most cunning assassin has won. Or has he? We see Steve returning to Art’s home to collect his red Mustang he parked there before they departed for Italy. But now Steve discovers a note in Art’s handwriting affixed to his rearview mirror. It reads: ‘Steve, if you're reading this it means I didn't make it back. It also means you've broken a filament controlling a 13-second delay trigger. End of game. Bang. You're dead.’ As Steve frantically gropes for the door handle, his car explodes. The moral to this story? Hmmmm. Never kid a kidder, I suppose.
The Mechanic is so obtuse in its motivations, so recklessly unashamed to pick up, drop and then completely discard various elements of its story, it increasingly becomes a mishmash of episodic threads. The action sequences are handled with pedestrian excitement at best, the buddy-buddy relationship slapped together with even less affecting mediocrity.  We’re asked to invest ourselves in vipers; Bronson’s wounded, piercing eyes directed at the camera, meant as substitute for a more world-wear weight on his shoulders, never entirely disclosed, though readily medicated with various sundry pills and potions; also momentarily anesthetized by his flagrante delicto with Jill Ireland’s nameless strumpet. 
If only the focus of Lewis John Carlino’s screenplay wasn’t in constant flux. Is it Arthur Bishop’s story we’re meant to invest in? No, wait – its Steve McKenna’s King Lear-ish pursuit to obliterate this ailing father figure? No, it’s a buddy-buddy action flick? No, my mistake. We’re observing a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions unfold, where predictably everyone has to die before the final fade out. Ugh! Tiresome. Relentlessly so; and so lost in its moments, the whole becomes undone and fairly ceases to exist.  The Mechanic has the look of a 70’s TV movie of the week rather than legitimate popcorn fare; Richard H. Kline and Robert Paynter’s cinematography unable to find interesting ways to showcase the action. It’s all head-on two shots and low angles without the drama of a vintage film noir or full-blown clever camera work of an action/adventure extravaganza. I just couldn’t get into this one, try as I might. I actually watched it twice: once for the film, then again to have a listen to the audio commentary. Alas, it didn’t grow on me – except, perhaps, like a fungus.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is, at least, a mostly positive experience; Fox/MGM having done a remastering job to ready these vintage elements for 1080p. We’ll chalk up the 1.85:1 framed image to being solid, though unremarkable. After all, there’s only so much you can do with these ‘dull as paint’ visuals. There’s an overall softness here; thoroughly in keeping with the original cinematography. Also, darker sequences suffer from exaggerated film grain; again – fairly certain this is due to low light conditions and vintage film stock, not the mastering effort put forth. But the heavier grain is also marginally exaggerated by compression artifacts. Color is pallid; flesh tones slightly washed out. Fine detail is brought into focus in close-ups. We can see intricacies in hair, fabric, etc. Long shots are undistinguished, generally looking flat.
For a mono mix, this DTS 1.0 is decidedly aggressive in spots; explosions and gun shots having good solid kick to them. Dialogue is cleanly presented; ditto for Jerry Fielding’s brooding underscore, far more satisfyingly represented on TT’s isolated 5.1 track. There’s also an audio commentary track featuring TT’s Nick Redman and cinematographer Richard H. Kline, plus Julie Kirgo’s usually stellar essay on the production. Bottom line: if you’re a fan of The Mechanic this Blu-ray is the way to go. Personal opinion: I think this movie is a waste of time.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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