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Messenger of Death (1988)

“Someday I’d like a part where I can lean my elbow against a mantlepiece and have a cocktail.”

That quote credited to legendary tough guy Charles Bronson has always been in the back of my mind when I think of or revisit the eighth of nine films that he collaborated on with director J. Lee Thompson. The reason is of course that the plot includes a cocktail party for Bronson to attend looking very dapper in a black suit and matching bowtie. All that’s missing is his wife and frequent co-star, Jill Ireland, on his arm.

The title? Well it does have some basis in the plot but any fan of Bronson is going to assume before tuning in that there is only one individual that the title is referring to, the iconic vigilante of cinema that Bronson had been portraying since 1974. In truth the title is a reference to a religious image that will figure prominently when Bronson’s intrepid journalist begins to dig into the reasons behind the mass murder of three women and five children to open the movie.

Bronson’s role is in fact far different from his usual Cannon Films output. Here he’s playing the role of a peacekeeper between two sects of Mormon families that have been separated due to religious beliefs. It’s Charles Dierkop’s family who have been massacred. He’s the son of family patriarch Jeff Corey. Corey along with his followers oppose the teachings of his estranged brother John Ireland who runs the opposing sect. Bronson is a Denver newspaperman investigating the killings and doing far more than the local police in piecing together the reasons why eight lives were violently taken.

As a gentile, Bronson isn’t exactly welcomed by the fire and brimstone Corey and he’s shocked when Corey suggests it’s his brother John Ireland who’s behind the killings. Next stop is a visit to Ireland’s where he’ll meet Trish Van Devere who runs the small town newspaper guiding him in the ways of the Mormon folk. What Bronson has ended up in is the middle of a modern day rendition of the Hatfields and McCoys. Ireland suggests it’s Corey himself who orchestrated the killings of his own family.

But all is not as it seems and thankfully for the inept police department run by Daniel Benzali who seems to be allowing Bronson’s newshound to handle the case, Bronson is coming up with a theory of his own. One that is leading to big business and water rights. When the feud leads to more deaths and Bronson is sure someone is setting the two brothers against each other he vows with a vigilante look in his eyes…..

“I’m gonna get those bastards.”

Music to the ears of the Bronson cult who want to see their action hero pick up that shotgun prominently displayed in his hands on the movie poster to take out the big business bad guys with an appropriate one liner. Alas it wasn’t meant to be. Sure we get Bronson beating the hell out of an assassin but that’s as far as the revenge seeking ass kicker of the Death Wish series goes this time out.

To say this was a disappointment when first released is somewhat of an understatement. I was a youngster looking to see my movie hero laying waste to any gun toting criminal within reach. That includes the returning Gene Davis who had memorably played the serial killer opposite Bronson in 1983’s explosive 10 to Midnight. Time has softened my stance on Messenger of Death and while it’s far from Bronson’s best and probably the weakest of his Cannon flicks, it’s not all that bad offering the aging action star a break from his gun toting avengers.

Outside of Jeff Corey’s incredible set of eyebrows the movie is picturesque with location filming in both Colorado and California as a backdrop to Bronson’s mystery solving techniques. Being this is a Cannon Films release, fans of Bronson, Norris and Dudikoff should recognize some of the background names associated with the production. From Executive Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus on down to the credited music composer, Robert O’Ragland. Bronson’s long time associate Pancho Kohner also served as a producer on the film. A nice bit of trivia to pass on is the fact that Pancho is the daughter of Mexican actress, Lupita Tovar. Back in 1931 she played the role of Mina Harker in the Spanish version of Dracula filmed on the same sets as the Lugosi film after hours that was thankfully made available on the home video market after it’s rediscovery.

J. Lee Thompson first teamed with Bronson back in 1976 on St. Ives and would finish up their pairings in 1989 on Kinjite. As was his custom, J. Lee’s son Peter served as the editor on Messenger, his 7th time working with Dad on a Bronson film.

The film has a superior cast going for it considering it was produced by the budget conscious Cannon outfit. Aside from Bronson is the noted acting coach to the stars, Jeff Corey, one time western star John Ireland who had a brief appearance in Bronson’s Villa Rides back in 1968, Charles Dierkop who I always identify as a regular on the 70’s show Police Woman, Trish Van Devere who you may recall was in a succession of George C. Scott films as they were married, Marilyn Hassett appears as Bronson’s romantic interest though little is made of it and it also stars Laurence Luckinbill as one of the suits that comes in and out of our story as it moves along. You may recall Luckinbill as the chief villain Sybok in Star Trek V.

As to that opening Bronson quote, he’s given a chance to tie up all the loose ends of this murder mystery at a swank party with cocktails readily available. Should you be looking to give this lesser known Bronson effort a chance, you’ll find it easy enough on both DVD from MGM or blu ray via Olive Films.

9 Comments »

  1. Personally I love Messenger of Death. It’s a guilty favorite of mine of Bronson’s movies. I love the score by Robert O. Ragland and recently met his brother and a colleague of his. Ragland considered this score one of his best works although he scored a lot of Bronson’s movies he did for Cannon.

    • Thanks for sharing that bit on Ragland. The film has grown on me somewhat over the years but that first go around as a young man heading to the theater on opening night still proved a disappointment at the time. Wanted Murphy’s Law all over again.

  2. I was ready to ask you a bunch of questions about the film as I went along, but you kept answering them eventually! And yeah, kind of a gyp having a Bronson film called ‘Messenger of Death’, and then finding out…he isn’t. Well, at least we get to see him dress up and lean against a mantle! I can’t remember if I’ve asked you, but which of Bronson’s films of the ’80s is your favorite? I’ve always wanted to see ’10 to Midnight’, and figured that might be the one considered his ’80s best.

    • It was a disappointment and still is! Tough question but if only allowed to pick one film of the 80’s I’d go with …. Death Hunt (kind of like a western which earns it the grade and Lee Marvin helps). Close behind is 10 to Midnight, Evil That Men Do and Murphy’s Law.

      • I actually saw Death Hunt at the theater when it was first released! Don’t remember much about it, though. And of course, those other three are NOT part of my Bronson 4-pack…(sigh), I may have to make another purchase…

        • 10 to Midnight has developed a bit of a cult following with the horror crowd which comes as a surprise considering it’s a Bronson film but with serial killer film’s rise in popularity this one is rather memorable for both the cult fans and us Bronson Brothers.

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