An oddity among Charles Bronson’s prodigious ’70s output, the melancholy, European-made Western Chino has a few brief passages of action, but mostly it’s a minimalistic character study about a principled iconoclast. In fact, one could easily see John Wayne playing a meatier version of the title role. The protagonist of Chino has a characterization as lean as Bronson’s musculature, though he’s not precisely a man of few words, since he’s capable of loquacious moments. Where his enigmatic nature surfaces, and where the film’s storytelling becomes somewhat dubious, is in the area of this hard-driving man’s relationships with others. Living alone on a horse ranch, he seems like someone who prefers his own company, and yet he takes in a young orphan with little hesitation, he confidently woos a society woman who visits his ranch to ride horses, and he maintains a neighborly bond with a local Indian tribe. The filmmakers seem to like the romantic notion that their hero is more at peace with his horses than with other humans, but the overall flow of the story challenges the credibility of the premise. Combined with sluggish pacing and some iffy supporting performances, this thematic fuzziness dooms Chino to mediocrity, even though it’s noteworthy as one of the only Bronson movies to lead with its emotional aspect.
The plot is suitably simple. Half-breed Chino Valdez (Bronson) lives quietly until young Jamie (Vincent Van Patten) rides onto his land with nowhere else to go. Chino gives Jamie a job and becomes a kind of surrogate parent to the lad. Later, cruel landowner Maral (Marcel Bozzuffi) annexes land that Chino has used for years, setting a fight in motion; Chino dislikes constraints as much as the wild mustang the filmmakers employ as a recurring metaphor. Later still, when Maral’s sister, Catherine (Jill Ireland), falls for Chino, it’s war, because Maral doesn’t want a half-breed soiling his family line. During the picture’s most violent passages, Chino gets into brawls with thugs and Maral has Chino whipped—rough stuff, to be sure, but mild by the usual Bronson standards. Playing Chino, Bronson cuts such a formidable figure that he’s believable as a man who can endure anything in the name of his beliefs. Furthermore, the film’s bittersweet ending has a gentle kick. Yet Ireland and Van Patten are so mechanical that their scenes lack energy, and the Maral character is hopelessly one-dimensional. On the plus side, the mellow guitar-and-harmonica-led score sets a distinctive mood, and the wide-open spaces of the film’s locations convey something about the title character’s don’t-fence-me-in soul.