• Charles Bronson 4-Movie Collection (Mill Creek Entertainment) Blu-ray Review



    Released by: Mill Entertainment
    Released on: April 24th, 2018.
    Director: Terence Young/Michael Winner/Tom Gries/Walter Hill
    Cast: Charles Bronson, Robert Duvall, James Coburn, Martin Balsam, Jill Ireland, Randy Quaid
    Year: 1972/1973/1975/1975
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    The Movies:

    Four Bronson movies on two discs for ten bucks? Yep! Here’s a look at what makes up Mill Creek Entertainment’s Charles Bronson 4-Movie Collection which spreads out four Sony owned properties across two discs.

    DISC ONE:

    The Valachi Papers:

    Based on a 'tell-all' novel that claims to be based on actual mob history by Peter Maas, The Valachi Papers, interestingly enough, had to be filmed in Italy for fear of mafia intervention on American soil. The real-life Joseph Valachi, upon whom the stories in this film are centered around, was an actual mafia big-wig and no one involved in making the film wanted to wake up next to a horse’s head because of their commitment to the production.

    Told in flashback by Valachi (played with a wonderful sense of menace by Charles Bronson), and book-ended by his time in custody, the film details his story to a U.S. Federal Agent about his work in the underworld between the years of 1929 and 1961. Employed by a mob boss named Vito Genovese (prolific star of French cinema, Lino Ventura), Valachi is wronged and turns informer on his former employer. It's a dangerous move and because of it a price ends up on his head and violence ensues. There are a few twists and turns along the way but the story moves in a pretty straight forward fashion as we witness Valachi working his way up through the ranks until he's ultimately forced to turn against his fellow hoods and fight for his life. The structure isn't all that different from Scorsese's Goodfellas and it does a fine job of letting us get to know the lead characters as Valachi's story unfolds.

    Stylishly directed by Terence Young (who had worked with Bronson before on a few of his other 'shot in Europe' films, namely Red Sun and Cold Sweat), the film features supporting roles from Bronson's wife Jill Ireland as well as Walter Chiari and Joseph Wiseman (of Dr. No fame). While Young's direction is solid and eye-pleasing (thanks in no small part to the slick cinematography by Aldo Tonti who was also behind the camera for Sergio Sollima's 1970 classic Italian action film, Violent City, also starring Bronson), the supporting cast is comprised of some seriously clichéd Italian mobster types played by bit part actors who don't appear to be very authentically Italian. That being said, Young manages to make excellent use of the period costumes, cars and settings, which gives the very realistic story a strong and authentic feel. There's a lot of detail in the film, from the fashions to the decorations inside some of the restaurant settings and the production feels quite lavish despite a few anachronisms here and there (watch for the World Trade Center buildings in the background of one scene… I'm pretty sure that they weren't there in the 1920s!).

    At over two hours in length, there are a few slow spots and a couple of sub plots that make the film feel a little on the padded side but there's so much that's good about the film that it's very easy to overlook these minor complaints. When the action hits, it's ugly and gritty and violent and Bronson manages to accomplish his climb up the mafia ladder with style and that cold sense of menace that's so easily and rightfully associated with many of his performances. The film also benefits greatly from a classy and emotional soundtrack from Riz Ortolani. As he's proven in the past with his work on such popular Italian genre films as Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust and Tonino Valerii's Day Of Anger, the man knows what notes strike a specific chord with an audience and he uses that expertise quite wisely with his work on this film. While not quite as powerful as Ennio Morricone's compositions for Sergio Leone's take on the American gangster mythos, Once Upon A Time In America, it is damn close and nearly rivals the maestro's work in Leone's swan song.

    Meandering subplots and mediocre supporting actors aside, The Valachi Papers hits you with a great performance from Bronson in a tough as nails role he was born to play and some great camerawork to pull you into the story. It isn't Bronson's best role, but it is reasonably close and is certainly a better than the average entry into his filmography. It also has the dubious honor of being one of the only films in his large body of work to feature a nasty castration scene, so if testicular injury is your bag, and you love Bronson like you should, then this is the movie for you. It's played completely straight, it works on almost every level, and it's a very down to Earth look at the early days of organized crime in America. While Coppola and Scorcese are the first two names that come to mind when you think 'mob movie' it's criminal to sell Young's film short, as it truly is up there with the best of them.

    Worth noting is that the TV print of the film, which was the most common way to see the movie in North America until the DVD release that came out via Sony in 2006, was shorn of any nudity and the castration scene. This version, though it states a PG rating on the back of the packaging, does have the castration scene in it at the ninety-minute mark (I'm not 100% positive that this scene is uncut, but if I had to guess I'd say that it was) and also includes some brief scenes of topless female nudity, indicating that this might be the original R rated version of the film. Furthering this is the fact that the murder and 'hit' scenes are all fairly bloody – definitely more so than your average PG film (particularly the hit that takes place in the barber shop).

    The Stone Killer:

    Based on the novel by John Gardner, Michael Winner’s 1973 picture The Stone Killer stars Charles Bronson as a tough New York City cop named Lou Torrey. When the film opens, he’s chasing a liquor store robber through a tenement building. When the culprit opens fire on him, Torrey responds in kind and shoots him dead. Turns out that the culprit in question was seventeen years old and while it was clearly self-defense, this doesn’t look good, particularly as Torrey’s got a reputation for violent methods.

    To get some of the heat off of him, Torrey winds up being shipped off to Los Angeles for a spell. Here Torrey’s involvement in a drug bust soon finds him involved in a case wherein a mob boss named Al Vescari (Martin Balsam) hires a small army of unstable Vietnam veterans to wage war against rival mobsters as an act of revenge for an assault on his own family that took place forty years ago.

    The movie is memorable for a few reasons, not the least of which is a fantastic chase scene in which Bronson, in a car, goes after a killer on a motorcycle. This set piece takes them through various parts of Los Angeles, across and then down some railroad tracks and through some other locales and it’s fast, tense and dirty! This sequence shows just how good Winner could be at directing action set pieces when he wanted to, and it’s pretty exciting stuff. On top of that we get some quality shoot outs, including a tense one that takes place in a stairwell, a violent finish that takes us deep into a very industrial looking parking garage and some decent tough guy dialogue too.

    Bronson is in fine form here. As is typical of his performances, he plays Torrey as a man of few words. It works for his acting style, he was much more of a physical actor than a verbal one, and while he’s not asked to really emote all that much, he does the strong silent type better than almost anyone else has before or after. If his presence weren’t enough, the movie also has some interesting supporting players in it. While Martin Balsam isn’t necessarily the first guy you’d think of if casting a Sicilian mobster (he was or Russian Jewish heritage) he’s perfectly fine in the part and he has a solid screen presence. In addition to Balsam, we also get Norman Fell as one of Torrey’s superiors and a young John Ritter as a rookie cap – it’s kind of neat to see them here a few years before they’d both obviously be cast in Three’s Company. It’s also cool to see Jack Colvin, best known for playing Jack McGee in TV’s The Incredible Hulk series, as well as Paul Koslo, instantly recognizable from his turn as Dutch in The Omega Man, pop up in decent sized parts here too.

    Featuring some nice location photography in both New York City and Los Angeles and an excellent jazz-infused score composed by Roy Budd (who did scores for The Wild Geese and Get Carter to name only two), this third collaboration between Bronson and Winner (who has previously done Chato’s Land and then The Mechanic together) is one of their best – a movie where it all comes together and ninety minutes or so of rock solid entertainment.

    DISC TWO:

    Breakout:

    Tom Gries’ 1975 picture, Breakout, opens when a man named Jay Wagner (Robert Duvall) is framed for murder by some Mexican gangsters and sent off to do some hard time south of the border. His wife Ann (Jill Ireland) is, understandably, not happy about this and she enlists the aid of a surely Coors-swigging pilot named Nick Colton (Charles Bronson in a role originally intended for Kris Kristofferson) to help her out. See, there’s a way that Jay can escape – it involves hiding in a coffin – but once he’s out of the prison, assuming the escape attempt works he’ll need a safe way home.

    Colton isn’t so sure about taking this job, but money talks and soon enough he’s enlisted the aid of his pal Hawk Hawkins (Randy Quaid), and a feisty blonde named Myrna (Sheree North) to help Ann get her man back alive. But of course, nothing can be easy and it turns out that there’s a lot more to this job than just flying over the border and finding Jay – the guys that framed him want to make sure he doesn’t make it out alive.

    A decent way to kill an hour and a half, Breakout casts Bronson in a role that suits him quite well. Colton is a little chattier than the strong, silent types that he was frequently cast as but it allows him to show some comedic timing and a knack for delivering believably snappy dialogue. He’s a likeable, rascally type in this movie, sucking back beers and cruising around in sleeveless shirt and a cowboy hat, but he makes the part work. In short, he’s fun to watch. Supporting work from Duvall and Ireland is fine. She doesn’t have the most range in the world but she handles the part with no trouble, while Duvall is basically good in pretty much everything, this film being no exception, Randy Quaid is a kick here too, providing a bit of comic relief from time to time without hamming it up too much. At one point we get to see him in drag, so there’s that too. Sheree North – who played Blanche’s sister on an episode of The Golden Girls – is also fun in her part. She gets to vamp it up a bit here and she’s quite good at it.

    The story, based on the actual 1971 helicopter rescue of an American named Joel David Kaplan from a Mexican prison, moves at a pretty solid pace. The locations work well and are convincing enough. There’s decent action here and the direction from Gries, who did a lot more TV work than film work (though he also directed Bronson in Breakheart Pass) keeps things moving at a good clip. Oh, and John Huston has a small supporting role in this one too, which is pretty cool.

    Hard Times:

    Walter Hill's directorial debut was 1975's Hard Times, a period film set in depression era New Orleans in which a fifty-something Charles Bronson plays a drifter named Chaney. When the movie begins, he's hopped a train and landed in New Orleans. With only six bucks to his name, he's got to find a way to make some money but the employment situation is grim. As he's handy with his fists, he figures he could earn some quick cash by fighting. After he stumbles more or less completely by chance into a brawl that he promptly wins, he catches the eye of a fast talker named Speed (James Coburn) who offers to manage him for the lion's share of their winnings. Chaney agrees and Speed brings on Poe (Strother Martin), a man with some dubious medical training and an opium problem, to help out with post fight first aid duties.

    Speed sets up a fight, Chaney wins it. Then Speed sets up another fight, this time against the local champion, a massive grinning psychopath and Chaney takes him on too, inside a mesh pen of sorts. At this point, Chaney's earned enough money that he's more or less done with the idea, but a name fighter from Chicago is en route to New Orleans but Chaney doesn't want to do it and he knows the man from Illinois won't do it for free. Speed's got a loan shark after him for some past due debt, while Chaney falls for a kindly prostitute named Lucy (Jill Ireland). Inevitably, Chaney steps in to help Speed but he's going to do so on his own terms.

    Like a lot of Hill's movies, Hard Times is a pretty manly film, a movie about tough guys doing what they've got to do in order to survive. The characters, however, make the picture more so than the fight scenes. Not that the movie doesn't deliver some solid action, because it does: the scenes in which Chaney takes on his opponents are hard hitting and sometimes surprisingly brutal given the movie's PG rating. This is important to the story being told but it never overshadows the characters. We don't know a lot about Chaney, he wanders into the movie and at one point makes some vague references to his past, and then just as he arrived he more or less wanders out. Plot heavy this picture is not. That doesn't make him any less interesting, however, and the relationships that form between he and Speed and Poe are deep enough that there's enough charm and bonding and just interesting development to keep us wanting more.

    Chaney is one of those roles that Bronson was born to play. He's a man of few words, a calm and cool character but one who you don't necessarily want to cross. He brings a sense of fair play to the role alongside an impressive screen presence and some serious menace. For a man in his fifties when the movie was made, he's in great shape here, but that weathered face of his tells some stories, letting us know that even if he doesn't want to spill the details, Chaney has lead a hard life. Coburn as Speed is the polar opposite, he's got a mouth on him, the kind that gets him into trouble but which can often help in talking his way out of it too. He's got an infectious grin, a smile full of teeth with loads of charm and he's great in the part. Martin too is fun here, and Ireland also solid in her role, though she isn't given as much to do as the others. The cast bring their best to their performances, there's not a weak one in the bunch.

    On top of that, the movie is an impressive achievement in terms of technique as well. The movie looks great, letting us soak in a lot of New Orleans scenery, the sets decorated with loads of period detail and atmosphere. The camera work is excellent and the score weighty enough to emphasize the action and the drama without overdoing it. The plot might meander a bit and the movie is oddly folksy at times, but anyone with an appreciation for this type of material ought to appreciate the film Hill has crafted with Hard Times, a fairly poignant and at times almost poetic film filled with gritty atmosphere and great characters.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Mill Creek presents the four films spread across two discs, with Valachi Papers and The Stone Killer on one disc and Breakout and Hard Times on another. All four films are presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition in what would appear to be their proper theatrical aspect ratios. With three of the movies having been released on Blu-ray already by Twilight Time (the exception there is Breakout which appears on Blu-ray for the first time in this set), it’s maybe not a shock to learn that this set uses the same transfers on those three films. The Twilight Time discs do offer better compression which will be noticeable on larger sets but for the most part these transfers are just fine. Breakout does look a little less cleaned up than the other movies but even here print damage is pretty minor. Colors are generally consistent and well produced and black levels are strong across the board.

    Each of the four films in the set gets a 16-bit LPCM Mono track. There are no subtitles provided. Audio quality is fine. Range is, understandably, limited but dialogue is always easy enough to understand and there are no problems to report with any hiss, distortion of sibilance.

    There are no extra on either disc, just static menus offering movie selection.

    The Final Word:

    Mill Creek’s Charles Bronson 4-Movie Collection offers up a ridiculously affordable way to enjoy four rock solid Bronson thrillers in nice shape. No extras, of course, the presentations are quite good and the movies all hold up.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!








































    Comments 7 Comments
    1. Darcy Parker's Avatar
      Darcy Parker -
      “The real-life Joseph Valachi, upon whom the stories in this film are centered around,” would read much more smoothly as “he real-life Joseph Valachi, around whom the stories in this film are centered”
    1. agent999's Avatar
      agent999 -
      It doesn't with a missing 'T'.
    1. David H's Avatar
      David H -
      Nice review Ian. I've always had a particular fondness for BREAKOUT since it was the first Bronson film I saw in the theater (I was in 4th grade), and I still think it holds up as a nice piece of entertainment. Memorable are a great stunt from a helicopter during the breakout scene and one of the best villain deaths of any movie in the 70s (and relatively gruesome for a PG film).
    1. Ian Jane's Avatar
      Ian Jane -
      Yeah, Breakout holds up well. Obviously it would have been nice to see it get more of a 'deluxe' release than it got on this four pack, but it's tough to argue with the price point on this and even if it is less than perfect I'm happy to have a decent HD version of it.
    1. C.D. Workman's Avatar
      C.D. Workman -
      I was surprised by how good the films looked, and I paid $10 for it, so it amounted to $2.50 a film. (Many Walmart stores are carrying it for that price.)
    1. moviegeek86's Avatar
      moviegeek86 -
      I was shocked to see this @ wal-mart. I haven't seen any of the movies so I'm looking forward.
    1. C.D. Workman's Avatar
      C.D. Workman -
      The Walmart in my town has added a bunch of great titles recently, both on Blu-ray and DVD. For example, they're now selling Shout's AMITYVILLE and VINCENT PRICE III collections. I just picked up a 9-film action set on BD from Mill Creek this morning. Their DVD sets have been really great lately, too, and very affordable.