"The Mechanic"is a different twist on the "hit man's last job" movie, presenting Charles Bronson as solitary and stoic as ever, yet forced to realize he's aging and can't do what he once did. Rather than try to retire or get out of the business, he chooses to train someone else to thin his workload. At least that's how it appears on the surface.
Arthur Bishop (Charles Bronson) is the best hit man or "mechanic" around. We see his meticulous methods right away, opening the movie with Bishop on the job. After learning his target's daily routine and securing an apartment with a window facing his target's window. He takes pictures of the man's apartment and scrutinizes his information at home for the perfect way to kill him. He breaks into the man's apartment and prepares it for the hit by placing a malleable explosive in a book in the man's bedroom rigging the gas oven to leak and drugging his tea. From the facing apartment, he watches the target drink his tea, and get drowsy, He waits until later that night, before shooting the book in the bedroom with a sniper rifle, causing a big and fatal explosion.
Bishop next meets with Harry McKenna, (Keenan Wynn) a longtime friend of his father. Harry explains the the Organization says that Harry broke "the agreement" and won't take his calls any longer. He would like Bishop to talk to them on his behalf. Bishop doesn't see what difference that will make, but Harry explains that the reverence they had for Bishop's father, might make them more agreeable. Over a drink, Harry reminds Bishop of a story about Harry, Bishop's father and Bishop as a boy on a fishing trip. Bishop had fallen overboard and couldn't swim, which prompted his father to say "he'll learn" not moving a muscle to help him. Harry recalls that he himself had to reach out and pull him back into the boat.
Harry: Your old man, he laughed like hell!
Bishop: That was a long time ago.
Their visit is interrupted by Harry's son Steve (Jan-Michael Vincent) who shows up looking for money. Harry initially gives him a hard time before handing him the $1,000.00 he wants and Steve remarks, "My father gets uptight when I ask him for money he steals from other people." Harry apologizes for his son's manner and asks Bishop to call when he knows something.
Bishop gets a delivery which is the contract on Harry. He pins up all of Harry's personal information and plans out the hit. He scouts a remote beach location and tells Harry the Organization has asked him to meet there. When they arrive, Bishop drives up to a hill overlooking Harry on the beach. He takes shots at Harry from his hidden location and then acts as if he's discovered a sniper and is attempting to help Harry get away. Harry runs to the car, exhausted and Bishop approaches him gun in hand revealing his intention. Bishop then suffocates Harry in the car.
Bishop visits a girl (Jill Ireland) who role plays a rather mundane drama with him, playing his neglected girlfriend, including reading a letter she wrote, requiring him to comfort her. After they spend the night together, she announces that the letter was difficult and will cost him another hundred. He agrees, remarking that the letter was a good touch, recommending something like it for next time.
Bishop runs into Steve again at Harry's funeral. Steve isn't too bothered by his father's death, describing his father to Bishop as "Harry McKenna, fixer extraordinaire, pusher, pimp, thief, arsonist..." Bishop asks, "You liked him a lot?" Bishop tells Steve that Harry had worked for his father years ago. Steve realizes that this means Bishop's father was in the Organization and he asks Bishop if he's in himself, surmising that he is although Bishop tries to change the subject, reminding him to pay attention to the funeral. When Bishop remarks on Steve being sure of himself he responds "I live in my mind, Mr. Bishop."
Bishop: "Sounds like something I read someplace.
Steve: And so do you.
Bishop leaves the service and Steve asks him for a ride home. Bishop agrees and finds that Harry's (now Steve's) house is full of Steve's friends having a party. Wading through the crowd, Steve tells Bishop, "My father never really liked my friends, and I'm not so sure I do either." Steve gets a phone call from a girlfriend, Louise, threatening to kill herself. He asks Bishop if he'll come along to visit Louise. They find Louise with razor blades, preparing to slit her wrists. Steve makes a show of not caring and Louise cuts one of her wrists to prove she will, still getting no reaction from Steve or Bishop, other than Bishop telling her how long it will take her to die based on her weight. Louise insists that Steve will stop her before she dies, but Steve says "Listen, if you don't care anything about your life, then why should I?" Steve throws her some car keys and tells her she might live if she heads to the Sheriff's station in Malibu right away.
Discussing the situation, and the idea of watching someone die, Bishop he tells Steve "It just means you have your own rule book."
Steve: I can dig that.
Bishop: It takes a very special kind of person to pick up the tab for that kind of living. You say you dig it, but you're talking about something you really know nothing about.
Steve: And you do?
Bishop: Do I?
Bishop attends to his routines including martial arts, and knife throwing as well as talking a lot of pills. Visiting an aquarium he passes out, and wakes up in the hospital. The Doctor at the hospital recommends he see his own doctor, and says it sounds like he's experiencing "Acute Anxiety Reaction" adding that if it isn't that, he may want to try a psychiatrist.
He wakes up the next morning to find Steve parked outside his house. Steve is impressed with his place and Bishop explains he inherited a lot. Steve tries to convince him to let him in on his "action" Bishop takes Steve out in a plane, letting go of the controls and forcing Steve to take over, which he quickly does. At a bar later, Bishop explains that his father was a "Judge" who had the final word settling Organization disputes,until someone didn't like a decision and put a contract out on him, when Bishop was sill in school. Steve shares that his father never let him in on anything, although he wanted to know the business. Bishop lets him witness a karate match which turns pretty brutal. Steve remarks "He practically murdered that guy." and Bishop answers "Murder is only killing without a license and everybody kills, governments, the military, the police."
Steve: Do you think Yamato's a killer?
Bishop: He's a killer that doesn't kill. It's funny. No, for him, the rules are important.
Steve: That's your expert opinion?
Bishop: That's my opinion.
Steve points out that Bishop is being evasive about giving real answers. Bishop reminds him that he better be sure he wants the answers he's asking for. He asks Steve what he knows about the term "Mechanic" and Steve tells him it can be used as synonymous with hit man. Bishop reveals that's what he is and tells Steve that sometimes he could use a back up. Steve asks, "You do this for money?"
Bishop: Money is paid, but that's not the motive. It has to do with standing outside of it all, on your own.
He offers to teach Steve all he can, and confirming he's in, Steve says "You've got a partner Mr. Bishop." Bishop corrects him, "Associate."
Steve demonstrates an aptitude for the work and they start training for real. Going through a museum Bishop tells Steve "There are killers and there are killers, to tell you the truth they all have a different book of rules. To get away with it depends on the book of rules you have in your pocket at the time, your own country, somebody else's country, or your own personal book of rules. All this (waves at the museum figures) heroes, half of them are killers. Napoleon was one you know, Pancho Villa, Genghis Khan, and the we have our own domestic brand, like Billy the Kid, Jesse James and John Dillinger. Yeah, they're about as famous as our own honest to goodness heroes."
Bishop gets an assignment to kill three men, who are in the habit of riding around on dirtbikes, but live behind heavy security with constant guards on watch. Bishop includes Steve in the job, including the surveillance. Bishop surprises Steve by watching one of the men in a conversation via binoculars and reading their lips to discover a "Chicken Licken" truck set to arrive at the guarded compound for a delivery. Bishop finds vats of acid at a plating plant to dump the bodies afterwards. Steve and Bishop take the Chicken Licken truck and enter the compound. The hit is messy though and one of the men escapes forcing Bishop to chase the man on a dirtbike. Although the man ends up dead, the chase causes quite a commotion running through backyard parties and causing car accidents.
Bishop is called to meet with one of the Organization heads. He takes a plane to meet a chauffeured car which brings him to the estate. The man (Frank DeKova) is paining a leopard which he has tied in the yard. The man comments that the last job was very messy and asks about Harry McKenna's son and how he's involved in things. Bishop takes exception at the thought of having to ask permission. The man reminds him that there are rules in place which ensure the Organization survives, implying that Bishop has broken a rule.
He gives Bishop a new assignment saying it has to be done fast.
Bishop: I'll handle it the way I always do.
Man: There may not be time enough for that. The word is he's getting ready to talk to some people. The problem is considerable.
Bishop: I'm not some wild Cleveland shooter. I don't cowboy!
Man: If he talks, things could get complicated, sloppy. That would disturb a lot of us. It's not really open to discussion, Mr. Bishop. This business of McKenna's son has upset a few of our associates.
The man tells him that the target is in Naples, where they have him a room already.
Bishop gets home and heads to Steve's place. Finding Steve is out, he looks around and finds that Steve has taken a contract to kill him. He puts the papers back and goes home. When Steve shows up at Bishop's house later, he fills him in on the Naples job, telling him they want it "Cowboyed" He also tells Steve that he is nevertheless going to do it the way he's always done.
They head to Naples and start watching the target, discovering that the man is very unpredictable, rarely doing the same thing twice, with the exception of returning to his boat. Bishop shares a local wine with Steve, explaining that it doesn't travel well and they don't export it. He reminds Steve to savor it and the time he has. He also gives Steve advice about planning hits, telling him, "You've got to be dead sure, or dead." Bishop tells Steve he'll pick up some scuba gear and they'll use it to get on the boat undetected to kill the target. They succeed and Bishop plans an explosive before they leave. As they get off the boat, some Organization men show up after them in speedboats. They watch as the men get blown up with the boat. Steve asks who the men are and Bishop explains that they're Organization men, after him because he broke a rule by not asking them to start training him. More men show up soon, leading to a car chase. Bishop blows up a car chasing them and then sends an exploding car into a roadblock set for him, and pushes the last pursuing car off the mountain road with a bulldozer he finds on the side of the road.
Back at their room, Steve offers Bishop a glass of the local wine he likes. Steve watches with interest as Bishop has a sip. Bishop insects the glass himself suspiciously before picking up his bag to go, only to double over in pain. Steve says "Brucine! You'll be dead in a few minutes. Listen, you'll really appreciate this. This stuff is absolutely clear when it's in solution. I just coated the inside of the glass with it and let it dry. When the wine hit it it went right back into solution. No trace. Looks just like a heart attack." Bishop keeps struggling on the ground in agony. Steve continues "You said every man has his jelly spot. Yours was you just couldn't cut it alone."
Bishop: Was it because of your father?
Steve: You killed him? I thought he just died. You see? There you are. They told you who to hit. Kept the whole idea from being what we talked about. You needed a license, their license. I'm gonna pick my own mark, hit when I want. Just like you said, standing outside. See Naples and die."
Steve heads to Bishop's place, as if making it his own. He picks up the ball Bishop would squeeze to strengthen his fingers and then gets into his car and finds a note taped to his rear view mirror. We hear Bishop reading it to him " Steve, if you read this it means I didn't make it back. It also means you've broken a filament controlling a thirteen second delay trigger. End of game. Bang, you're dead."
While "The Mechanic" could be accurately billed as an action film, it's a very thoughtful one, using the model of the hit man to ask some existential questions such as, what does it mean to "live outside?"The hit man is often used for questions like this. To it's credit the movie doesn't throw these questions at characters until we realize the questions suit them. The sub text is delivered beautifully suggesting the psychological scars of the lead characters, without putting the camera to them directly. Bronson's Bishop has many issues with family, relationships and society in general. We first hear his father mentioned when Harry describes the younger Bishop almost drowning. Harry remembers that the didn't cry or scream, just stared up at his father who didn't move a muscle to help. "That was a long time ago." Bishop answers to dismiss the story, but we wonder if Bishop has really put it behind him. He tells Steve that his father was a "judge." for the organization, and that he didn't talk about the Organization to him. When Steve compares their fathers suggesting that they were cowards, Bishop takes exception, claiming his father was "the best." He works for the Organization that his father helped build and has the same job as the man from Chicago who killed his father. When told he has to "cowboy" a hit, Bishop claims he's not a "wild Cleveland shooter." and we get a possible reason for his meticulous planning and methods, Cleveland not being too far from Chicago and possibly where his father's killer hailed from. Bishop possibly hopes he can be better at his job than the man who killed his father, which would finally give him some power in their relationship, or at least his idea of it. This also affords him the idea that he is "outside the system" to which his father was devoted.
Bishop's justifications for killing echo the question wrestled with by Rasalnikov from Dostoevsky's classic, "Crime and Punishment." which is reinforced when Bishop tells Steve that Napoleon was a killer, the same thought that Dostoevsky's character had and wrestled with. Like Dostoevsky's character, Bishop can't put himself in the same place that Napoleon did, we see it suggested that his physical problems are psychologically based and possibly due to the stress and guilt from making a living killing people. Bishop imagines himself outside the rules, yet must admit that everyone has rules, the distinction he makes is that some people have their own rule book.
"There are killers and there are killers, to tell you the truth they all have a different book of rules. To get away with it depends on the book of rules you have in your pocket at the time, your own country, somebody else's country, or your own personal book of rules. All this (waves at the museum figures) heroes, half of them are killers. Napoleon was one you know, Pancho Villa, Genghis Khan, and the we have our own domestic brand, like Billy the Kid, Jesse James and John Dillinger. Yeah, they're about as famous as our own honest to goodness heroes."
He speaks contemptuously of those who "need a license" to kill, but Steve appears correct when he accuses Bishop of using the Organization to provide a license for him, a fact which we can surmise Bishop himself must have considered, and possibly the reason he "broke the rules." and brought Steve in without asking permission. Despite his challenging tone to "the man" in the Organization, we know that Bishop has spent most of his life enforcing contracts on other's who broke these rules, so ignorance is not believable. This is supported by his lack of surprise, finding Steve has taken his contract. Ultimately, we have a man so lost in his own contradictions, that he is ready and willing to orchestrate his own death. His disconnection from life is also illustrated in his paying a hooker, to not only have sex with him, but to convincingly act the part of his disappointed girlfriend, as if he can forge human contact by emulating it.
While evaluating Steve, after watching Louise cut her wrist, Bishop tells him "It takes a very special kind of person to pick up the tab for that kind of living. You say you dig it, but you're talking about something you really know nothing about." We know that Bishop himself is wrestling with "the tab." Choosing Steve as his protege is not accidental, having parallels to his own story. We know that Steve's father once saved Bishop's life, and that Steve considers himself outside the rules. It's Steve that points out that they both live "in their minds." While on the surface, we don't see Bishop with any ethical compunctions about killing, we do sense that his disconnectedness is becoming to much to bear and training Steve may be an assertion of his humanity, the chance to let someone into his head. Bishop plays out his death perfectly, not tipping Steve off in any way that he knows he's planning to kill him. Even when after the last hit, the Organization miraculously arrives gunning for him, knowing that only Steve could have tipped them off, he doesn't show the least suspicion. His own death is in fact, necessary to build Steve's confidence in order for Bishop's hit on Steve to work. Bishop doesn't succeed at living but can succeed in dying "by his own rules."
This is a solid film by Michael Winner, who seemed well suited to bring out the best in Charles Bronson (also notably collaborating in Death Wish.) The opening sequence is brilliant and you become so involved in Bishop planning his hit that you don't realize you've witnessed 16 minutes without any dialogue whatsoever, as close as we can get to living in the character's mind. This paints the character beautifully and is particularly good for Bronson, an actor who acts with his stony face, more than with anything he says. Jan-Michael Vincent is great as Steven, a cocky kid, too full of himself for his own good. And it's also a treat to see Bronson with Jill Ireland, his longtime wife, although her part was small here. The action sequences are exciting and original, and this is as much an action film as it is a dramatic one, which is suitable for the questions it poses.
Bronson is great as a hitman and the term "Mechanic" suits him. his disconnected, technical approach to killing makes the taking of someone else's life an engineering problem, rather than a cruelty. He shows no emotion even when killing Harry, an old family friend who he remembers from childhood. Yet, we do get glimpses of emotion turning behind his eyes. He considers things obsessively, yet his stoic determination and adherence to his own rules puts any qualms at bay, yet, not completely enough that his subconscious lets him off the hook. He does, "live in his mind." but his longing for some sort of connection must be placated somehow.
"Be dead sure or be dead!" Bishop tells Steve, and this observation hits in a couple ways. Bishop is no longer sure about many things, and sees this as a logical choice, accepting the latter. Steve says he'll "Try to remember that" but Bishop tells him "Don't try. Remember." Steve doesn't have time to grasp the full meaning of the advice, and pays for it, his sudden explosive ending the only fitting reminder for not considering all the angles. "The Mechanic" examines the "tab" that must be picked up by those who think to "live outside." presenting it as an inevitable fact, which you will pay eventually, even if you're too skilled to be forced to pay it by anyone but yourself.
*There is a remake coming out shortly, directed by Simon West (Con Air) starring Jason Statham, Ben Foster, and Donald Sutherland. I'll be curious to see how it turns out but can't imagine it will top the original classic. Jason Stathams a solid action guy, but you can't compete with Bronson.