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Charles Bronson: The Cannon Years

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Original US Poster for 'Death Wish 3.'

Original US Poster for 'Death Wish 3.'

He debuted in the classic horror film House of Wax under his real name of Buchinsky, later gaining 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 an international star and cemented U.S. stardom in Death Wish. His name was Charles Bronson, one of the top box office attractions of the 1970s and a true Hollywood icon.

Why is Bronson's legacy somewhat "shorted" on acclaim?

Bronson's many classic films don't always receive a deserved second look and appreciation because his career ended on a B-movie note. He continued 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.

Bronson's charted downwards in the late 1970s, and he needed a hit. When the 60-something actor revived the Paul Kersey role in the horrifyingly exploitative and sleazy Death Wish II for a seven-figure payday, the film's box office success showed that Bronson could still draw in audiences. While some sources list Death Wish II as a flop, box office tallies say otherwise. Director Michael Winner enraged Bronson by lingering on the feature's notorious sexual assault scene, a scene that suffered many edits. The released version earned tens of millions in worldwide box office revenue, and Bronson's career was back on track.

Among those paying attention to the success of the film were the powers that be at Cannon Films, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Golan-Globus produced Death Wish II, and the film would be the first of eight pictures Cannon would make with Bronson.

Cannon Fodder

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 most memorable cult 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. Unfortunately, Cannon would suffer a series of bombs, such as 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.

Cannon found itself losing money and, worst of all, couldn't rely on hit action films like American Ninja to save it. Times were changing, and audiences' tastes 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 waning days, Cannon produced a series of 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 the wild and over-the-top Death Wish III. The film was neither the serious character study like the first film nor the sleazy exploitative second entry. Someone decided to make Rambo Meets The Warriors with a few borrowed elements from the Dirty Harry film Sudden Impact added. A crazy action-fest, 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 with duct tape, your author can attest that the audience was behind Mr. Bronson 100%.

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 aren't listed among Bronson's top films, they sold well on home video. (Murphy's Law is excellent, BTW) The absurd Death Wish 3 and the exploitative Ten to Midnight did become cult films.

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 represented the only viable production company for him to maintain starring roles. And Cannon did make some cool B-films. Revenge of the Ninja is still a blast to watch.

Bronson's films were popular during the 80s on both cable and syndicated television. Perhaps the Cannon films' success 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 had the name value to draw audiences to theaters, customers to video stores, and viewers to cable television channels. If he couldn't, those Cannon films never would have been made.

Comments

Tony Caro (author) on September 03, 2017:

I saw Death Wish III in a theater in South Philly...the screen was held together with duct tape....the place was packed and the audience was wildly rowdy. I also saw Murphy's Law in a rundown theater, too. Bronson's 1970's output was much more critically acclaimed, but his grindhouse/home video/cable output in the 1980's was pretty wild.

electrofunk on September 03, 2017:

Love this era for Bronson. Saw Death Wish 3 in the theater and have been a fan of the whole series ever since. Bronson is the reason that they work. Nothing outsleazes The Evil That Men Do though.

Keith Abt from The Garden State on October 29, 2012:

I saw "Death Wish 4" in a theatre back in '87... it was a hoot! Even though I was in a big, modern facility in a shopping mall, watching a sleazy little B-Movie like that felt like I was in an inner city "grindhouse." Tons of fun.