A familiar face in action films throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Charles Bronson was a member of both The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen, but didn’t become a superstar until 1974, when he was 53 years old. The surprise blockbuster success of that summer’s scuzzy vigilante fantasy Death Wish seemed to set in stone the actor’s screen persona as a scowling, sadistic score-settler, leading to a long and at times astonishingly unpleasant career of increasingly cheap and brutal revenge pictures. To his credit, there were a few years there when Bronson tried to break out of the typecasting box, but American audiences were generally indifferent unless he was carrying a big gun and offing sordid scumbags in cold blood, all the way up through his final theatrical release exactly two decades after his big breakthrough, 1994’s ignominious Death Wish V: The Face of Death.
One can’t help but wonder how things might have worked out if the Bronson film released the weekend before Death Wish had instead been the one to become a box office phenomenon. Not that Richard Fleischer’s Mr. Majestyk wasn’t a well-liked picture and a modest success in its own right, but culturally, this affable action-comedy was shunted to the side by the later movie’s vulgar provocations. A shame, because Mr. Majestyk showcases a playful side of its star that became increasingly rare onscreen over the ensuing years. It’s a role that allows him to show off his natural intelligence and a puckish sense of humor. There’s a twinkle in that granite-faced squint.
Wearing a newsboy cap and more denim than you’ll find in Jay Leno’s entire wardrobe, Bronson stars as the title character, an unassuming Colorado melon farmer who through a series of coincidences finds himself mixed up with a gargantuan Mafia hitman played by The Godfather’s Al Lettieri. The screenplay is by Elmore Leonard, still a few years out from becoming America’s greatest crime novelist but already practicing all the talky twists and sneaky character asides that he’d soon hone to perfection in books throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Vince Majestyk is a classic Leonard protagonist in the tradition of Chili Palmer or Raylan Givens – an unflappable fellow completely at ease in his own skin, matter-of-factly reacting to violent threats in ways that reduce the bad guys issuing them to furious, sputtering wrecks. (These are the coolest characters because they don’t ever try to be cool.)
Majestyk’s hero bona fides are established in the opening scene when he humiliates a racist gas station attendant who won’t allow a group of Mexican migrant workers to use the restroom. You’re expecting Bronson to knock the guy’s block off but this PG-rated picture is a kinder, gentler vehicle for the star, who doesn’t even shoot anybody until the 80-minute mark. (All he blasts before that is a car radio speaker that, frankly, had it coming.) There’s a hint of romance with Linda Cristal’s Nancy Chavez – “no relation to the other Chavez, though I did picket with him” she explains in a typical Leonard aside – and what a relief it is to watch a Bronson film in which nobody gets raped. The worst of the movie’s machine gun violence is unleashed upon a warehouse full of watermelons.
Lettieri’s perma-furious mob assassin, looking like a gorilla in butterfly collars, could quite literally be getting away with murder, except there’s something about that smirking melon farmer that he just can’t let slide, allowing his macho pride to escalate bad situations into worse ones at every turn. Meanwhile, Bronson remains hilariously single-minded: the man just wants to bring in his crop. His constant, repeated concern for “my melons” becomes the movie’s funniest running gag, like Lee Marvin’s monomaniacal fixation on his $93,000 in Point Blank except with produce.
(Mr. Majestyk was originally written for Clint Eastwood, who had just worked with Leonard on Joe Kidd. Always wanting to shoot closer to home, Eastwood suggested moving the action to California and making the character an artichoke farmer instead, which just doesn’t have the same ring.)
The pleasures of Mr. Majestyk are those that would become abundant in the Elmore Leonard novels that followed. His snappy banter, small time hoods and low-stakes scams are a surprisingly comfy milieu for Bronson, who saunters through the movie slyly sizing everybody up and playing them all against each other. The film only deflates when bullets finally start flying in a largely dialogue-free third act. Fleischer’s handling of an extended desert chase so impressed the Ford Motor Company that it used footage from the film in TV commercials for the F-100 pickup truck Bronson drives in the picture. But careening cars can’t hold a candle to Leonard’s scheming hustlers and a star allowed the chance to shine in a slightly different light.