"Messenger of Death" (1988) represents the 8th of 9 pairings between Charles Bronson and director J. Lee Thompson - two prolific figures in the American film industry and two men who couldn't seem more bored making this movie.
The later Bronson films - the ones he made for The Cannon Group - are certainly a mixed bag. Some are sleazy classics and some are lazy outings attempting to capitilize on an action star beyond his prime; Messenger of Death falls into the latter.
Not all of the later Bronson films are bad, we covered Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects on the podcast (the 9th, and final, pairing between Bronson and Thompson) and despite it being a deeply offensive film, it's not bad - it's enjoyably bad. 10 to Midnight is another Bronson/Thompson outing that really stands out as well.
So where does Messenger of Death go wrong?
Let's start by having Charles Bronson play a newspaper reporter in Denver Colorado - a role that is hardly believably and one he seems less than interested protraying. By this time in his filmography we had come to know Bronson as a ruthless vigalante or a hardened cop, an investigative reporter just doesn't fit.
Bronson and Thompson are both miscast and this project comes off as an odd choice for two men that had established themselves as purveyors of sleezy action; I fail to see where Mormon family drama and Colorado politics fall into their wheelhouse. I can't fault them for trying something new but at this point in their careers it's an odd choice to stray so far from their familiar formula. The audience was undoubedtly buying tickets to see a death-wish-esque action film and probably left the theater confused and bored at what just transpired. We watch Bronson eat a damn biscut and actually stop a gunfight from happeneing. What world are we living in?!
The film starts in a familiar fashion for most Bronson/Thompson pictures; a grissly murder of a Mormon family in rural Colorado. Bronson comes onto the scene and deems himself the only one who can solve the murder. What follows is a series of long trips back and forth between fueding factions of the same family with scenes of Colorado's political scene sprinkled in. There are hardly any action scenes and Bronson - a man not known for saying much at this time in his career - is tasked with delivering long sequences of dialogue that leave him and the audience looking at their watches in boredom. He clearly did not want to make this film and in turn it becomes hard for the viewer to remain engaged.
That's not to say the film is completely unwatchable, there are some great Bronson-esque scenes to be found - specifically one at a funeral. The problem is that the film feels lazy and incomplete. J. Lee Thompson actually fell ill during the production of the movie and had to leave the assitant director in charge of finishing the film and it certainly feels that way. This is most apparent in the last few minutes of the movie, which just abrubtly ends without any sort of real closure and hangs on a very odd note. It actually had me laughing in a room by myself at the sheer oddity of it all, it's as if they simply gave up and moved on to the next project.
This movie was made in the twilight years of The Cannon Group and it demonstrates the problems the company was eventually running into. They simply didn't care about the products they were pushing out anymore, they thought just because they lined up the actors and directors the films would make themselves, it's not the case for this movie and it's not the case for the vast majority of their later films. The Messenger of Death is one of the laziest Bronson films I've ever seen - and that includes Death Wish 5.
I really wanted to like this movie. I really like Charles Bronson and I think J. Lee Thompson is a suprisingly good director (he did direct the original "Cape Fear" after all). This is simply the product of its environment and it shows. When your work becomes tedious and you don't enjoy your job, you don't create anything inspiring and you find yourself in a position of doing just enough work not to be fired. When it's apparent that the filmmakers didn't want to be a part of thier own project it's hard for the audience to find enjoyment in it. We can see beyond the camera in this production and what we see is two old men waiting to collect their paychecks and go home; it's not a pretty sight.