Charles Bronson: The Cannon Years
He debuted in the classic horror film House of Wax under his real name of Buchinsky and later gained wider recognition in the short lived and now forgotten television series Man with a Camera. He turned down Eli Wallach’s role in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. With his role in The Dirty Dozen, he became a star and he cemented that stardom in Death Wish. His name was Charles Bronson and he was among the top box office attractions of the 1970s.
Bronson’s many classic films may not have gained the great second look and appreciation they deserve because his career ended on a dire B-movie note. He was able to continue his career in the 80s based on his past fame, although his output was mostly drive-in, grindhouse, and direct-to-video fare. He did star in a few decent films such as The Border but they were not huge hits. When he revived his role of Paul Kersey in the horrifyingly exploitative and sleazy Death Wish II, the film’s box office success showed that Bronson could still draw in audiences. While some sources list Death Wish II as a flop, that is not the case. The excruciatingly violent film—considered by many to be Bronson’s worst—inexplicably earned tens of millions in worldwide box office revenue.
Among those paying attention to the success of the film were the powers that be at Cannon Films. They produced Death Wish II and the film would be the first of eight pictures Cannon would make with Bronson.
As fans of 1980s action films will remember, Bronson appeared in a series of low-budget films made by Cannon. They were the premiere B-grade production house that proudly proclaimed their films to be "A Golan-Globus Production." These two names were the masterminds that ran the operation. In the 80s, Cannon released some of the best (and some of the absolute worst) action films of the era. The flagging career of Chuck Norris was revived by a series of Cannon hits, starting with Missing in Action. Jean Claude Van Damme’s first three films were profitable successes, with Bloodsport and Kickboxer remaining cult classics. Cannon would unfortunately suffer a series of bombs, such as with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. They invested $50 million in Tobe Hooper’s three picture deal (Invaders from Mars, Lifeforce, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) with the hopes of cashing in on the director’s success with Poltergeist. This proved to be a disaster. Times were changing and the tastes in audiences during the late 80s and early 90s did not have much of an appetite for low-budget action films. Cannon went into bankruptcy.
During both its peak and its waning days, Cannon produced a series Charles Bronson films that were a mixed bag at the box office but made huge money on video. Probably the most popular of these films was Death Wish III. The film was neither the serious character study of the first film nor the sleazy exploitative endeavor of the second film. It was a bizarre mix of Rambo and The Warriors with a few stolen elements of the Dirty Harry film Sudden Impact thrown in. A complete mess of a film, Death Wish III was enough to give audiences what they wanted—Bronson taking on the bad guys and dishing out hard justice. Having seen the film in a sold-out Philadelphia grindhouse, where the screen was held together by a hunk of duct tape, your author can attest that the audience was roused by the film.
A Rebirth for Bronson
Charles Bronson probably got a very lucrative deal for the films he made for Cannon. While Murphy’s Law and Assassination are not well remembered, they sold well on home video. The absurd Death Wish 3 and the sleazy Kinjite: Forbidden Secrets did rise to cult status and play on cable quite frequently.
Critics may refer to Bronson's Cannon years as a fall from grace for the great actor. The truth is, for the aging star, Cannon was really the only viable production company for him to maintain starring roles.
Bronson’s films were popular during the 80s on both cable and syndicated television. Perhaps the success of the Cannon films was an attempt for fans to relive the theater experiences they had viewing the classic Bronson outings of the late 60s and the early 70s. Bronson was no longer a major international star but he was still Bronson. He could still draw an audience. If he couldn’t, those Cannon films never would have been made.