When Charles Bronson passed away in 2003 (while I was attending a screening of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at Lincoln Center, I might add) the notices were surprisingly respectful. Bronson was one of the world's biggest movie stars at one time and made a lot of great movies, but with his Cannon Films output in the 80s he seemingly pissed a lot of his critical goodwill away, so it was good to see many of the critics who bashed his later efforts say so many nice things about him. Bronson was one of the more intriguing movie stars to ever come along, mistakenly perceived as being limited in his skills as an actor, when in truth, he was an actor who always knew that less was more. He didn't have to use a lot of emotion to play a scene, because he was able to convey his character with just a glance or a simple movement. Bronson was easily one of the most physical of movie stars, a guy whose mere presence sometimes said more than pages of dialog. He could do dialog, too, and do it very well (just look at his work in Sean Penn's THE INDIAN RUNNER), but it wasn't always necessary. Few actors can just stand in front of a screen and tell you most everything you need to know, and Bronson was one of the best. This is especially apparent in Sergio Solima's vastly underappreciated 1970 film VIOLENT CITY, one of Bronson's very best and a terrific thriller in its own right.
VIOLENT CITY is an interesting (and happily very successful) mixture of action and film noir, a somewhat typical Bronson revenge story mixed in with a doomed love story and a few other great noir elements that I won't go into here. Solima was always one of the smarter Italian action directors (THE BIG GUNDOWN; RUN, MAN, RUN) who made films that were efficient and relied on story more than some of his contemporaries did. CITY may be the best screenplay Solima had to work with (Lina Wertmueller was one of the writers!) and easily the best cast, because in addition to Bronson he also had Telly Savalas and Jill Ireland. Now, I know that Jill Ireland's presence doesn't usually inspire a lot of confidence in viewers, but trust me, Solima makes great use of her here. To start, she's never looked better, smoking hot in almost every scene and often incredibly sexy, despite some vintage early 70s outfits. Her character has several layers to her, more than just the standard love interest for Bronson, but importantly, it's the love story that helps make this movie. You're fully convinced that Bronson's character, a professional hitman, is in love with Ireland (as he obviously was in real life) and would go through all he does in this film for her. Bronson is surprisingly strong in the love scenes, which pays off like a big ol' motherfucker in the climax. That's another thing: VIOLENT CITY has a humdinger of an ending.
This being a Bronson film, there's a lot of action, of course, and the action here is absolutely classic stuff, first rate in every regard. The opening car chase has got to go down as the greatest unsung car chase in movie history, so good that it sets the bar almost too high for the rest of the film to follow. But the rest does not disappoint, with a superbly structured Bronson "hit" on a race track among the other highlights. Solima knew action very well and along with his 1973 Oliver Reed film REVOLVER, shows that as far as the Italians went, he was one of the best. The director shows up in an on-camera interview on the Anchor Bay Starz DVD, which is unquestionably the best way to see the film. In addition to being the complete cut of the film (it was hacked down to 93 minutes and retitled THE FAMILY for the U.S.), it's also a gorgeous transfer (courtesy of William Lustig's Blue Underground) that shows the film off as the slick, professional production that it was. While the DVD has been on the market for about 5 years now, I'm still surprised that VIOLENT CITY's reputation hasn't grown more (especially after Bronson's passing), but check it out and I think you'll agree that it's one worth seeing. We all know that Charles Bronson was a total badass, and when you see VIOLENT CITY his badass stock go up considerably in every viewer's mind. The movie itself is pretty badass, too.