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What’s up, Contenders? Terry Malloy here reporting live from the Waterfront.
Cannon Fodder is an ongoing column that will re/visit the entire canon (ahem) of feature films produced by Cannon Films. Launching some of the biggest action careers in film history, such as Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, Cannon Films were the ultimate purveyors of mid-budget cheese throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s. Cannon Fodder will explore the entire filmography of this storied production company (in no particular order) and will do its best to prepare AICN readers for the upcoming release of Mark Hartley’s definitive Cannon Films Documentary; Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.
Although Cannon Films was not run for the entirety of its existence by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus, they are the power players that gambled big and eventually lost big with this prolific production house. Each edition of Cannon Fodder will briefly explore what level of involvement the loveable cousins had in each film. Because there are several dozen titles in the Cannon Canon, each installment of this column will cover multiple titles.
Sorry it has been so long since my last Cannon Fodder entry, Contenders. Fantastic Fest, and a full time job, got in the way. I actually watched both of these films before the Fest and had dreamt of getting the column cranked out before Fantastic Fest arrived. But reality set in quickly. Please do trust that my conviction is sound, and my spirit is willing, even if my schedule makes me weak.
This week we’re continuing to discuss a couple of films from serial collaborators Charles Bronson and Director J. Lee Thompson. Although they ultimately made 9 films together, they don’t all fall under the Cannon Films umbrella, and I’m not going to write them all up in order because, well, October has arrived. And I’d like to focus on the few Horror titles that show up in the Cannon Canon this month. As always, let me know what recommendations you have if you don’t see a Cannon horror film in the works that you’d like to see covered here.
MURPHY’S LAW puts our man Bronson in the shoes of Jack Murphy, a rebel cop/ DIRTY HARRY kind of guy. He’s got a crappy apartment, his ex-wife has turned to being a stripper, and he’s not happy about much of any of that. But when he gets framed for murder, Murphy finds himself handcuffed to a young woman who had just earlier that day stolen his car. Yep, that’s right, MURPHY’S LAW is a “cop handcuffed to a criminal” movie. This time around the criminal is a tough talking, insult spewing female car thief named Arabella (Kathleen Willhoite). As you can probably guess, the antagonistic pair, while on the run and trying to figure out who set Jack up, grow to understand and even befriend each other. And you best believe Bronson is going to get his man.
But that brings me to my favorite part of MURPHY’S LAW, which is that the killer at the heart of the film is actually a woman. And a body-building, disguise-wearing, psychopath at that! The audience learns pretty early on that the killer is a woman (Academy Award-nominated actress Carrie Snodgrass), but Jack doesn’t know. And we also don’t know who she really is or what her motivations are. In the end, it kind of turns out that she really doesn’t have much legitimate motivation at all, and I found that frustrating.
Honestly, I can’t say I dug MURPHY’S LAW a whole lot. And it is certainly my least favorite of the Bronson/Thompson pairings that I have taken in for this column so far. The script for this film takes our protagonists on a pretty lame journey. And I could probably go my whole life without ever seeing another film with two main characters physically chained together. It just feels like such a Hollywood trope that never ever happens in any sort of reality I know about. Look, there are obviously good “chained together” films out there; this just isn’t one of them. Everything in MURPHY’S LAW feels very set up and forced. The film opens with Arabella stealing Jack’s car, which is a sequence that really only exists to set up their eventual pairing. As soon as they are chained together, Jack decides the only way he can get out of the set up is through breaking out of the police station, so Arabella is forced to come along. But I’ll be damned if the break out sequence isn’t one of the worst I’ve ever seen.
Then you have Arabella herself. I couldn’t shake the idea that she was kind of a Bart Simpson rip off, but Bart wasn’t really a cultural icon yet at the time of this movie. She says a million off-the-cuff insults that reek of mid-to-late 1980s, and the stuff that comes out of her mouth is just bizarre, unfunny, and painful. A faux street punk character calling Charles Bronson a “butt crust”? Or telling him to “Suck a door knob?” No. She just felt like the creation of a screen writer who was trying to be edgy but had no concept of what quality verbal sparring can actually sound like on screen.
I don’t think I laughed once at any of her one-liners, and there are hundreds of them. And yet I’m sure the screenwriter isn’t entirely to blame. Willhoite must have been doing quite a bit of improv. And her word-choices and delivery just come across as painfully inauthentic to me. But I’m curious to hear what you all thought about this aspect of the movie. For me, Arabella was a “make or break” kind of character. If you think she is funny or endearing, then your take on this film will probably be wildly different than mine. I couldn’t stand her, so the movie as a whole fell apart.
As I mentioned though, the movie isn’t a total fail. Snodgrass’ female villain is eerie and is given a killer final showdown sequence in which she is shooting at Bronson in a darkened, Gothic stairwell with a crossbow. No joke, this is an awesomely tense sequence and it allows for a truly amazing final send off in which Snodgrass’ character tells Bronson to “Go to hell” and he then says “Ladies first” before sealing the deal. It is a nice climax for an effective screen villain in a movie that isn’t quite as good as her performance warrants. And when you find out why Snodgrass’ killer Joan has gone to all this trouble of framing Jack, it is pretty ho hum.
Both this film and MESSENGER OF DEATH represent some of the latter films in the collaborations between star Bronson and director Thompson. Fortunately this seems to be the worst of their collaborations that I have taken in thus far, and it really isn’t THAT bad of a film. It is just heavily dated and saddled with a tired concept of chained together protagonists.
Things You Will Only Ever See In THIS Movie
- Anyone, ever, in the history of humanity, calling Charles Bronson a “butt-licking donkey fart” and living to tell the tale.
- A “leotarded” female serial killer strangling her parole officer with a telephone chord.
How Many Tablespoons of Golan/Globus Are Added?
As with many Cannon Films today, MURPHY’S LAW is currently being distributed on DVD by MGM. But the film itself was actually produced by Golan-Globus Productions and theatrically distributed in the USA by The Cannon Group. So this is Golan-Globus all the way. That said, Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan have only got Executive Producer credits on this film.
How Can You See MURPHY’S LAW?
I’ve got to admit that while I didn’t love the movie, the quality of the DVD image was striking. I always find it interesting when a relatively forgotten studio film gets an uncharacteristically good digital transfer, but MURPHY’S LAW is that film. So you can pick up the DVD here at Amazon (which helps to support this column) and the disc is a quality product for a subpar film. You can also rent the disc via Netflix.
Now MESSENGER OF DEATH is the type of film that we do tend to see quite often, but it is a pretty big departure for Charlie Bronson nonetheless. The film is based on a novel by Rex Burns, entitled THE AVENGING ANGEL. It opens with a creepy mass murder sequence set on a mysterious farm. This time around Bronson plays Garrett Smith, an old school, hard-hitting journalist who wants to unravel this mystery. I wouldn’t even go so far as to call this an action movie at all, although Bronson’s mere presence makes one tempted to classify it as such. Rather, MESSENGER OF DEATH is a pretty straightforward murder mystery book adaptation. And I don’t think it is a particularly great entry into the religious murder mystery sub genre, but I really ended up having a blast with the movie even if it’s resolution is overblown and ridiculous.
Bronson’s reporter, lovingly referred to as “Garr” (rhymes with Scar), is the kind of well-connected, big story reporter that we just don’t see or hear about much anymore these days with the 24 hour news cycle. He is a bit of a celebrity journalist and he’s got an old school thirst for justice that prevents him from minding his own business. Like I said, I feel this was a different archetype from Bronson’s normal loner cop. And kind of like Paul Kersey from the first DEATH WISH, Bronson’s character here seems to be quite socially conscious. He alternates between being out in the field and researching for his story about the murders and being back in downtown Denver hob knobbing with Mayoral candidates at black tie functions. Therefore, because of movie logic, these two worlds will eventually have to collide. But we’ll get there in a minute.
The fun stuff in MESSENGER OF DEATH is all the crazy Mormon stuff. And I don’t say that to offend any Mormon readers. This movie’s Mormons are LITERALLY crazy Mormons. Like Warren Jeffs sect-style Mormons. They live in isolated areas, on farms and ranches, and look down on outsiders as Gentiles. These aren’t the Mormons that come and knock on your door, because knocking on your door would force them to interact with Gentiles. You get the idea.
Anyway, the movie starts off with a really eerie massacre on one of these farms. We don’t yet know that Mormonism is going to be a focus of the film. All we know is that a peaceful and idyllic farmhouse bustling with young children soon becomes the scene of a murder spree perpetrated by a man shrouded in shadow. Who is this child killer and what were his motivations? Only Charlie Bronson can truly get to the bottom of it!
As ole Charlie starts investigating, he relentlessly researches to get to the bottom of the killings. He interviews both sides of a warring clan of Mormons complete with two rival brothers who had a theological split, as well as a full on gun fight between the brothers’ clans ala the Hatfields and McCoys. It is really fun stuff. But for some reason, as Garr uncovers more and more of the truth, he finds himself repeatedly attacked by rogue water trucks on winding, back country roads. There are some shots in these water truck attack sequences that are really incredible and hard to figure out exactly how they were shot. Some of them are featured in the trailer for the film, and rightly so. Between the incredibly shot car chase sequences found here, and the full-on Mormon clan gun battle, there are enough super cool moments in MESSENGER OF DEATH to easily make it rewatchable. (And way better than MURPHY’S LAW in my book.)
I also found a couple of random tidbits to dig about the film. For one thing, I find it interesting to set a film about Mormons anywhere BUT Utah. And yet, here we are in Denver and outlying rural areas of Colorado. This might just have been where the novel was set, but I liked the idea that these rogue Mormons were settled somewhere away from the more mainstream believers in Utah.
And I can’t neglect to mention the sensible sweaters of Garrett Smith. In an almost comical attempt to distance Bronson from his loner cop roles, the choice was made to clothe Garr almost entirely in hilariously frumpy sweaters. Hell, even the cover of the film proudly displays a shotgun-packing Bronson in a responsible red and black number. But don’t let the sweaters fool you, when Bronson gets cornered by a murderous hit man, we all know who is going to come out on top, regardless of the fact that a reporter has no reason to know judo.
The conclusion of MESSENGER OF DEATH is so overblown and ridiculous that it kills every last ounce of tension. But there is some awesome unintentional humor due to just how over the top it all is. Would you believe that the mystery was bigger than just two warring clans? Would you believe that somehow a bunch of corrupt and wealthy white people are really the brains behind the murders and that the conspiracy reaches high into the upper crust of society? Of course you would. ‘Cause, you know. movie logic. And story telling economy. There are only so many characters in the film, and one of them has to be the evil villain. Even if you don’t figure it out, the “reveal” is hilariously blunt and spelled out. It is about a half step in quality below the final moments of every SCOOBY DOO episode.
Overall, MESSENGER OF DEATH is a routine murder mystery film that offers just enough flair, action, and quality camera work to keep you engaged. The religious overtones of the film are also intriguing to this religious guy. Bronson is repeatedly told he is not welcome among the believers, and yet his persistence wins the day and even wins the cautious loyalty of the Hatfield/McCoy’s. MESSENGER OF DEATH won’t change your life, but if you love Charlie Bronson, this is definitely worth a look.
Things You Will Only Ever See In THIS Movie
- Charlie Bronson valiantly calling a cease fire amongst rival clans of Mormons whilst wearing a sensible sweater.
- At least 5 cherubic little children being massacred onscreen within 5 minutes of the start time of a film.
How Many Tablespoons of Golan/Globus Are Added?
Once again, Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan have Executive Producer credits on this film. And also seem to have both produced and distributed the movie through Golan-Globus Productions and The Cannon Group, respectively. I can’t say this for sure, but I almost wonder if, after Director J. Lee Thompson and Charles Bronson had already made something like 5 or 6 films together by this point, the Cannon producers just let these guys do their thing as long as they did it within budget? Thompson/Bronson did make some films outside of the Cannon umbrella, but they were a pretty inseparable duo towards the ends of their careers and they were both highly seasoned professionals. My sense is that Golan/Globus were probably happy to be in the steady and reliable Thompson/Bronson business. Anyone have any further intel on this front?
How Can You See MESSENGER OF DEATH?
Once again, I was quite impressed with the quality of the image on MGM’s DVD release of this film. The colors on Bronson’s sweaters just POP! You can pick up the DVD of the film at Amazon right here. It also looks like you can actually get this movie and two other Bronson Joints for a combined cheaper price on Amazon right here with this ASSASSINATION/MESSENGER OF DEATH/THE MECHANIC triple pack! Sweet. The disc is also available for rental via Netflix and Blockbuster.
And I’m Out.
Terry Malloy AKA Ed Travis