Taken solely for its surface pleasures, The Mechanic is a handsomely made thriller with an unusual amount of detail given to the preparations hitmen take before doing bad things—at certain points, it almost seems like a documentary. Combined with enigmatically tight-lipped performances by star Charles Bronson and supporting player Jan-Michael Vincent, director Michael Winner’s clinical approach makes for a unique (and uniquely nihilistic) viewing experience. Yet learning about the film’s origins adds interesting dimensions. Writer Lewis John Carlino, who based the script on his own unfinished novel, apparently envisioned the story with a gay angle, exploring the dynamic between an avaricious apprentice and a world-weary mentor. Alas, overt references to this approach were excised, and in fact the apprentice and mentor characters are portrayed as being aggressively heterosexual. Given these behind-the-scenes negotiations about thematic content, however, it’s possible to watch The Mechanic simply as a he-man story—or to look deeper for something kinky beneath the surface.
In any event, Bronson stars as Arthur Bishop, a methodical killer who makes his murders-for-hire look like accidents. Around the time he accepts an important contract from a group of organized criminals, Bishop inherits an unlikely trainee, Steve McKenna (Vincent). Among the most interesting elements of the film is a pair of mirrored scenes featuring these men with the women in their lives; Bishop’s girl is a prostitute (Jill Ireland) whom he pays to simulate a personal bond, and McKenna’s is a troubled hippie (Linda Ridgeway), with whom McKenna plays insidious mind games during the movie’s darkest scene. (Revealing exactly how Bishop and McKenna become allies would require giving away too much of the plot.) About half the picture takes place in Europe, where Bishop and McKenna fulfill a challenging contract, only to realize they’ve been set up for a double-cross. The betrayals pile up until an unusually hard-hitting ending.
Winner, a frequent Bronson collaborator, shoots the film with precision, accentuating physical environments that convey more about characters than the characters themselves are willing to say; he also stages action expertly, creating tension against a grim backdrop of pervasive hopelessness. His careful treatment of brutal material gives The Mechanic a strange kind of macho integrity—and because Bronson and Vincent give such contained performances, it’s possible to project interesting psychological implications onto their blank faces. So while The Mechanic isn’t high art by any measure, it’s not a mindless thrill ride, either.
The Mechanic: GROOVY