Michael Winner was on a hot streak in the first half of the ’70s, cranking out one crackerjack “guy’s movie” after another. Several of these films were done with leading man Charles Bronson, including hits like The Mechanic and Death Wish. The Stone Killer was made in the heart of this golden era and it shows off everything that made the Winner/Bronson team such a surefire commercial proposition: slick visuals, tight pacing, a knowing use of Bronson’s persona and action, action, action.
The Stone Killer was adapted from a novel by John Gardner and focuses on Lou Torrey (Bronson), a New York cop who is shuffled off to Los Angeles after a controversial shooting incident. A drug bust turns up an old informant who claims to have dirt on a big operation but is shot before he can reveal it. Torrey investigates and soon finds himself embroiled in a plot that involves a sinister soldier of fortune (Stuart Margolin), a group of Vietnam Vets turned hired killers and a power-hungry mafioso (Martin Balsam) who has an elaborate plot to take care of a decades-old grudge.
So what you have here is essentially a police procedural spiced up with some action… but The Stone Killer gives you a version of that where the testoterone and adrenalin are cranked up over the red line. Regular Winner flick scribe Gerald Wilson establishes a quick-as-a-bullet pace in the early scenes and never lets up, dovetailing his comic book plotting and tough, terse dialogue with a barrage of action scenes that get more baroque and intense as the film progresses. The final half-hour is practically wall-to-wall large scale action scenes.
Winner directs the escalating mayhem with a focus on color and energy, bringing as much snap to the frequent dialogue scenes as he does to the action. It helps that he’s got the kind of phenomenal character actor cast here that he had in his other early ’70s action outings: the supporting players include Paul Koslo as a bisexual jazz-fanatic assassin, Jack Colvin as a weaselly car thief who tangles with Bronson, Norman Fell as Bronson’s boss and Ralph Waite, who has a ball playing a bumbling racist partner that Bronson is saddled with.
The aforementioned Margolin and Balsam are also fun to watch, even if Balsam’s Italian accent gets a little Chef Boyardee-ish at times. Margolin seems to be doing a dry run for the country-fried characterization he’d perfect a year later in Death Wish. However, it is Bronson that rules the roost here with the expected tight-lipped charisma here. He brings a sly wit to his work here to offset the machismo, doing it in an effortless way that shows just how underrated he really was as an actor.
That said, action is the order of the day in The Stone Killer and Winner and company never forget this. The director takes a visceral delight in staging this stuff, with highlights including a car vs. motorcycle chase that gets more vicious and outlandish with each turn and a wild showdown in a parking garage that piles on the car stunts, explosions and shootouts. It’s also worth noting that the best/wildest scene involves machine guns galore and what might be the greatest dummy death in film history.
In short, The Stone Killer is one of the most entertaining Winner/Bronson collaborations. If you’re interested in either man’s work, it’s a must to include in any respectable survey of their filmographies.
Blu-Ray/DVD Info: a letterboxed M.O.D. DVD exists but the better viewing option lies in dual blu-ray editions, one from Twilight Time in the U.S. and the other a region-free disc from Indicator in the U.K. Both are similar in content but the Twilight Time disc has a unique commentary track from Bronson expert Paul Talbot while the Indicator set features a liner notes booklet by Talbot. If you’re as much of a Talbot-maniac as you are a Schlockmaniac, get both.