Schlock fans revere Charles Bronson, with good rea­son.  Whether he was in a top-shelf attrac­tion or a cut-rate pro­gram­mer, he could be relied upon to deliv­er the kind of cool, sto­ic pres­ence that only an old school tough guy can sum­mon up.   The less imag­i­na­tive dis­missed his stone-faced, inter­nal­ized approach as non-act­ing but the savvy under­stand that a real tough guy nev­er shows more than he needs to.  Better yet, he could dis­play sub­tle lev­els with­in that per­sona if the mate­ri­al gave him the right oppor­tu­ni­ty.

Bronson nev­er had a bet­ter vehi­cle than The Mechanic.  Other films might have been more pop­u­lar or made more mon­ey but this film had the smartest script and offered him his best-ever role.  In it, Bronson plays Arthur Bishop, a career assas­s­in who works for an unnamed crime syn­di­cate.  He keeps the rest of the world at arm’s length and devotes him­self to his work, work­ing out the vari­ables of his assas­si­na­tions with a scrupu­lous eye for detail and a flair for devi­ous tac­tics that make his work invis­i­ble and clean.  His skills are laid out before the audi­ence in a stun­ning, dia­logue-free sequence that opens the film, devot­ing a whop­ping fif­teen min­utes to a killing that is painstak­ing­ly designed to look like an acci­dent.

Unfortunately for Arthur, he is get­ting old­er and his work is tak­ing its toll on him (a mem­o­rable sequence involves him hav­ing a pan­ic attack).  The world is also chang­ing around him and not for the bet­ter: proof of this fact arrives when he is asked to assas­si­nate his men­tor, Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn).  Arthur does as he is told with his usu­al cool effi­cien­cy but he decides to break from his norm after­wards by tak­ing Harry’s son, Steve (Jan Michael Vincent), under his wing.  Steve may even be more cold-blood­ed than Arthur and this fas­ci­nates the old­er man, inspir­ing him to teach Steve the tools of his trade.  They become a team as the film works its way towards an end­ing that reflects its stark view of life and mankind.

Like the film’s hero, The Mechanic deliv­ers the goods but does so in a man­ner informed with a steely intel­li­gence.  Lewis John Carlino’s screen­play works in every­thing the action fan wants from a film like this — a cool hero, gun­play, car chas­es, elab­o­rate assas­si­na­tion set­pieces — yet he also adds ele­ments that sub­vert the for­mu­la.  Despite Arthur Bishop’s per­fec­tion as a killer, he is dogged by lone­li­ness and repressed fear.  His job — and his bril­liance at it — ensures that he will nev­er be able to over­come those trou­bles.  Even worse, the world he is in offers him no escape valve — the peo­ple around him are either face­less sheep/victims or lethal oppo­nents.  The plot rein­forces the feel­ing of exis­ten­tial dread cre­at­ed by the afore­men­tioned ele­ments, build­ing itself around the idea that once a person’s char­ac­ter is set in place, it can­not be escaped — and fate will col­lect its price from us all.

The Mechanic’s qui­et­ly doomy approach is suit­ed nice­ly by the per­for­mances.  Bronson anchors the film, using his nat­u­ral­ly reserved qual­i­ty to give the audi­ence the sense of a man who is qui­et­ly cal­cu­lat­ing every move and watch­ing each per­son with sus­pi­cion.  However, the script allows him to show cracks in this famil­iar façade and Bronson takes to them with sub­tly-deployed skill.  The best moment of his per­for­mance comes when we see Bronson’s reac­tions to an anec­dote about his child­hood told by the elder McKenna.  Though he says noth­ing, his haunt­ed expres­sion and frozen body lan­guage relay the lifetime’s worth of anguish his char­ac­ter care­ful­ly keeps under wraps.

The under­rat­ed Jan Michael Vincent pro­vides a  strong con­trast, pre­sent­ing us with a char­ac­ter whose easy charm and all-American looks con­ceal an amoral­i­ty that is all the more fright­en­ing because it is so casu­al.  Keenan Wynn rounds out the film’s cen­tral trio, with a gre­gar­i­ous turn as a loud but secret­ly des­per­ate vet­er­an of the crime biz who is feel­ing his age all too acute­ly.  It’s also worth not­ing that Jill Ireland has a role here, as she did in vir­tu­al­ly all of her hus­band Bronson’s films from the 1970’s and 1980’s — but she’s not mere win­dow dress­ing this time and her role actu­al­ly enhances the film’s por­trait of its main char­ac­ter.

The final piece of the puz­zle is Michael Winner’s direc­tion.  He worked fre­quent­ly with Bronson dur­ing the first half of the 1970’s and, even though the first Death Wish is their most pop­u­lar team­ing, The Mechanic is the defin­i­tive Bronson/Winner col­lab­o­ra­tion.

This is because it is the per­fect mar­riage of Winner’s direc­to­ri­al skill to Bronson’s onscreen per­sona: Winner devel­oped a knack dur­ing that era for mak­ing films that deliv­ered action and sus­pense in a style that had visu­al gloss to spare yet had a dark world­view and the occa­sion­al flash of grotesque humor (see also Scorpio and The Stone Killer for oth­er exam­ples from this peri­od).  Carlino’s script pro­vides the per­fect vehi­cle for the afore­men­tioned tech­niques and Winner dri­ves it home with ruth­less pre­ci­sion.  The director’s work is aid­ed nice­ly by gor­geous pho­tog­ra­phy — Richard Kline han­dled the U.S. loca­tions while Robert Paynter shot the Europe-set sequences — and Jerry Fielding’s edgy score tops it off with an final ele­gant yet icy lay­er.

In short, The Mechanic is much more than just a vin­tage Bronson pro­gram­mer:  the exis­ten­tial bleak­ness that runs through all its ele­ments make it an expe­ri­ence that is like­ly to leave you with a chill after its finale deals you the final punch.