Friday, May 11, 2018

CHARLES BRONSON - 4 MOVIE COLLECTION (1972-1975) (Blu-ray Review)

CHARLES BRONSON - 4 MOVIE COLLECTION (1972-1975) 

THE VALACHI PAPERS (1972) / THE STONE KILLER (1973) 
 BREAKOUT (1975) / HARD TIMES (1975)

Label: Mill Creek Entertainment
Region Code: A (but possibly Region-Free)
Duration: 351 Minutes 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1,85:1),(2.35:1)
Audio: Uncompressed English PCM 2.0 (No Subtitles)
Directors: Terence Young, Michael Winner, Tom Gries, Walter Hill 
Cast: Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Martin Strother, Martin Balsam, Robery Duvall, Jill Ireland



THE VALACHI PAPERS (1972) 

Rating: PG
Duration: 126 Minutes
Audio:  English Uncompressed PCM 2.0 (No Subtitles)
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: Terrence Young 
Cast:  Charles Bronson, Lino Ventura, Jill Ireland, Joseph Wiseman, Walter Chiari, Gerald O’Loughlin, Amadeo Nazzari

Truth be told this was my first time watching any of these Bronson films, I have never been one to seek them out and they weren't part of my childhood the way horror and sci-fi films were. The two films I remember of his from my childhood were 10 To Midnight and The White Buffalo, but after seeing the Death Wish sequels as a rearly teen I sort of filed him away in the back of my mind as a past-his-prime tough-guy vigilante actor which just never appealed to me in my youth. In retrospect there's plenty to love about Bronson's later career, even the tough-guy cops stuff, but this four disc set has given me even more of an appreciation for his seventies output.

Directed by 007 director Terence Young (Dr. No, From Russia with Love - two of the BEST!) The Valachi Papers is based on a novel by Peter Maas and purports to tell the real-life story of crime family informant Joseph_Valachi, as played by Bronson. Valachi is a low-level criminal who works his way up through a crime family, the film opens in the 60's in prison where Valachi has been sent following some drug busts, his former boss thinks he's an informant and gives him the "kiss of death", Valachi tries to persuade the boss that he's not the guy who fingered him, but with few alternatives Valachi ironically turns informant to the feds for protection. During his interviews with the fed he relays his story from the 40's on through to the sixties leading up to his incarceration. The film is well done, the period settings are convincing, Bronson is tough-as-nails and the narrative is brutal with many gangland killings, including a gruesome castration sequence. At over two hours in length this one does have some occasional pacing issues, but the story and execution are enthralling. Bronson's wife Jill Ireland shows up as - what else? - his wife, in a typically lackluster performance but even she couldn't tarnish this otherwise engrossing crime story of honor, betrayal and mob justice.

THE STONE KILLER (1973) 
Rating: R
Duration: 95 Minutes
Audio:  English Uncompressed PCM 2.0 (No Subtitles)
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: Michael Winner
Cast: Charles Bronson, Martin Balsam, Jack Colvin, Paul Koslo, Norman Fell, David Sheiner, Stuart Margolin

The Stone Killer (1973) is the third of six hard-nosed cop thrillers that brought director Michael Winner and Charles Bronson together onscreen. Her we have a New York cop, Lieutenant Lou Torrey (Bronson), who at the start of the film guns down a teen in self defense, but the bad optics lead to a transfer to L.A., almost immediately he gets caught up in some strange mafia happening when a heroin addicted hit man he's transporting is gunned down. The story involves mafia boss Al Vescari (Martin Balsam, The Sentinel) who's hired a group of ex-military assassins to carryout a kill-list having to do with a decades old mafia-hit and his vengeance at those who ordered it. 

This one is fast-paced and intriguing, as the mystery unfolds I was rapt, filming gritty violence and action were Winner's strong suits in life and he was in fine form here, there's a fantastic chase scene of Bronson in a car chasing a culprit on a motorcycle that was a crash-bang-boom good time, and Bronson is in prime silent-but-deadly mode throughout, cracking wise occasionally. There's a lot of colorful mob associated characters here, and be on the lookout for future Three's Company alum Norman Fell (Charley Varrick) and John Ritter (It) as L.A. cops! 


BREAKOUT (1975) 
Rating: PG
Duration: 97 Minutes
Audio: English Uncompressed PCM 2.0 (No Subtitles) 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.35:1) 
Director: Tom Gries
Cast: Charles Bronson, Robert DuVall, Randy Quaid, Jill Ireland

Breakout (1975) opens with Harris Wagner (John Huston, The Visitor) framing his grandson Jay Wagner (Robert Duvall) for a crime down in Mexico, the exact reason why he did this wasn't quite clear to me, but nonetheless he's sent to a Mexican prison, making his wife Ann (Jill Ireland, Hard Times) very unhappy. Jill seeks the help of a border town pilot-for-hire named Colton (Charles Bronson, Death Wish 3) and his somewhat dim partner Hawk (Randy Quaid, Christmas Vacation)to fly down to Mexico and rescue him, but she leaves out the fact that it's a prison-break! They arrives to a hail of gunfire and turn tail back to Texas, of course Colton is pissed-off that she didn't inform him they were breaking her husband out of a prison work detail, but drawn in by her charms he's undeterred, offering to try again, this time dressing up his partner Hawk as a woman to break her husband out of prison, but it seems the prison officials were forewarned that a break was about to happen and Hawk is beaten to a pulp by the prison guards. 

While Ann seems oblivious to the fact that someone is tipping off the Mexican authorities Colton latches onto that idea and keeps his next plan a bit closer to the vest, learning to (kind of sort of) fly a helicopter to perform a surgical prison yard extraction, a plan that requires bringing in an old flame named Mirna (Sheree North, Charley Varick) to pose as a rape victim to distract the prison guards! 

A fun and breezy affair this is a somewhat light-hearted prison break romp - rape jokes aside - with a surprisingly gruesome finale out on the runway, a nasty bit of business involving an airplane prop literally obliterating someone - which was surprising for a PG film in addition to the rape humor! This is probably the lightest fare of the bunch on this set, which isn't to say it wasn't entertaining, because it was quite a bit of fun, and it was good to see Bronson playing with humor throughout, not his usual sandbox to play in. It was also interesting to see him and wife Jill Ireland playing against each other, she married to Duvall's character but there's some sexual tension flying between her and Colton, too. 


HARD TIMES (1975)
Rating: PG
Duration: 94 Minutes
Audio: English Uncompressed PCM 2.0 (No Subtitles)
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.35:1) 
Director: Walter Hill
Cast: Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Jill Ireland, Strother Martin

The crown jewel of this Bronson four-pack is Hard Times (1975), set in Depression era New Orleans Walter Hill's directorial debut opens with a train-hopping wanderer named Chaney (Charles Bronson, Master of the World) arriving in The Big Easy. With only six bucks to his name and looking for some quick cash he wanders into a local bare-knuckles brawl-contest where he easily defeats the night's best fighter with one punch, earning him some dough and the eye of local fast-talking promoter Speed (James Coburn, In Like Flint) who quickly aligns himself with the middle-aged brawler. Chaney clears a path through the local fisticuffs champs with the aid of his new manager and an opium-addicted cutman named Poe, played with a lazy Southern charm by Strother Martin (The Brotherhood of Evil). The film follows the trio through a series of fights which Chaney wins handily, developing a reputation around town as a man to be reckoned with. When one Cajun promoter refuses to pay after a win he chases the rightful winners off with a gun, but that night they track him down to his gin joint and Chaney causes a ruckus, a one-man wrecking crew destroying the promoter's henchman and his bar in the process, and definitely getting the money owed to him. 

One of the first contenders to give Chaney some serious fight-back is the local undefeated champ, a bald-headed brawler named Jim Henry (Robert Tessier, Starcrash), but in the end Chaney's smarts outdo the man's brute strength and notorious knuckle-crushing hard-head. With Chaney crowned the new king around town one of the local promoters brings in a fighter from Chicago in hopes of regaining the throne. 

Along the way Chaney befriends and unsuccessfully courts a local hard luck prostitute played by - who else - Jill Ireland, who is fairly innocuous here in a small role that doesn't ask much. Meanwhile, the fast-talking Speed sinks deeper into debt due to a degenerate gambling habit, which the crooked promoter uses to leverage a new title fight. 

Walter Hill's no stranger to making manly movies about tough guys doing tough things, and this is no different, right out of the gate with his first film it bares his trademarks, Bronson is perfectly suited for the role - a quietly cool man with honor and integrity, and when called upon, his brute strength and a tactical mind serve him well with his brawling pursuits, if not so much when it comes to the ladies.  

Audio/Video: These four 70's Charles Bronson film arrive on 2-disc Blu-ray from budget-minded distributor Mill Creek Entertainment, presented in 1080p HD widescreen in the original theatrical exhibition ratios, both The Valachi Papers and The Stone killer get the 1.85:1 framing while Breakout and Hard Times are presented in scope 2.35:1 widescreen. All four films have been licensed from Sony Pictures, and notably, with the exception of Breakout, were issued this past year on Blu-ray from Twilight Time, and as they licensed their releases from Sony as well this is most likely the same transfer, but with two crammed onto a single disc without the benefit of any extras whatsoever. I was a bit worried about compression issues with this one but am pleased to report that these discs looks to be nicely authored and don't suffer any compression I could detect. Audio on all four film comes by way of uncompressed PCM English 2.0, each sounding clean and well balanced, though there are no subtitle options for any of them.  

The 2-disc release comes housed in a standard 2-tray Blu-ray keepcase with a one-sided sleeve of artwork, the disc themselves are standard issue for Mill Creek, black with white lettering, no frills and low-cost. I did notice they misspelled James Coburn's name on the back cover, "Cobern", but aside from no trailers that's my only niggle.  

If you're just looking to buy these films without any extras this is a damn fine release, and at the time of this review you can pick it up for $10, which is a steal, previously just buying the three TT titles would have set you back $75 easily, and they weren't exactly dripping with extras aside from one commentary on The Stone Killer and isolated music scores and trailers, but I will say that TT staff writer Julie Kirgo does some great write-ups for the films in the booklets. That said, even trailers would have been appreciated, but if you just want good looking HD versions of the film here you go, $10, done deal! This economical Bronson package comes highly recommended, and I hope to see more classic Bronson on the way soon! 

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