As the summer of 1984 was coming to a close, the usual September program fillers arrived on screen at the local cinemas. Closing out an action packed summer and making way for the Oscar Bait that Fall has become known for, is J. Lee Thompson’s “The Evil That Men Do”. I mention the director because he is an example of where careers go after great heights. He was nominated for an Academy Award as director for “The Guns of Navarrone” and he made “Cape Fear”, the classic thriller with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. At the end of his career though, he was cranking out revenge dramas for Cannon Films and he worked with the star of this movie nine times in a thirteen year period.
The star of course is Charles Bronson. For some reason he is not well known by the current generation of movie fans. Time marches on and yesterdays heroes are often just footnotes in cinema history. Once upon a time though, just like the director of these movies, Bronson was big. He pulled in box office, starred in major motion pictures and had a solid reputation as an actor, though of a very specific type. By 1984, he was a little long in the tooth for the action roles he was best known for, but with an international name, he could help those mini-major studios pre-sell their product overseas. “The Evil That Men Do” is a nasty piece of revenge drama that is twisted enough to be interesting, but struggles to build much suspense.
I will be honest with all of you, I am a Bronson fan so I may like a lot of his movies that are not very good and this one would fit into that category. It has maybe three or four things to recommend it enough however, so let me highlight the good stuff first and then we can dismiss the bad at the end of this post. The first thing this film has going for it is an innovative revenge angle. The bad guy is a merciless Doctor who teaches techniques of torture to anxious to learn third world despots. Dr. Clement Molloch is not played by some hard faced, Eastern European with a scar and a wandering eye, the actor who portrays him is Joseph Mayer, who looks like your Grampa or the friendly butler in an English comedy show. When we first encounter him as he is conducting one of his seminars, he is hooded in a menacing looking black cloak. His voice is calm and deliberate. As he removes the hood we are taken aback by the banality of the evil that we are witnessing. This proper older man with the neatly trimmed mustache is attaching electrodes to the testicles of his current subject. In a clinical manner he explains how the subject is to be psychologically humiliated as a part of the interrogation or execution, depending on how far it goes. The sequence is brutal in the manner in which the Doctor lectures and the observers take notes, while the victim is screaming in agony. It’s unlikely after this sequence that anyone watching will resist the force of nature that is Charles Bronson, being rained down on this horrible excuse for a human being. This movie is thirty years old, and it’s just a movie, but I wanted to shoot the character myself. The guy is a tool and a dandy.
It turns out that there was an attempt to eliminate the Doctor, already in play, but it goes wrong and the opposition in the country that he is operating in needs to bring in a professional. The genial front man who recruits Bronson’s character is Academy Award winning actor José Ferrer, another one time big player, cashing a paycheck and continuing to work. As Dr. Hector Lomelin, he is the go between for those who want the Doctor gone and the hired killer Holland. The man tortured to death in the opening scene is a journalist who was known to both men, and he is the lure that Lomein uses to try to get the retired black opps guy to do the job. This is Ferrer’s first appearance on 30 Years On, he will be returning to us in another, slightly bigger role when we get to December. Holland needs some cover to travel to the South American country where Dr. Molloch is holding out. Lomein arranges for a woman and her daughter to masquerade as Holland’s wife and child. They become the Smith Family. No, it’s not very original and if you can’t see where this is going, you have never seen a movie before. Actress Theresa Saldana, sometimes better known as a victim’s rights advocate after surviving a stalker attack, plays an embittered woman who has suffered as a result of the Doctor’s trade.
So we’ve looked at the set up, how about the execution? Holland does some surveillance with his cover and then asks the mother to take her adorable daughter, who has a father figure crush on Bronson, and get out of the country. She fails to do so which will lead to complications later in the story. At this point, Bronson does what he does best, starts killing people. The Doctor is too cagey to be out in public much, but Holland figures to lure him out through fear and provocation. As he and his cover wife are following a close associate of The Doctors, they end up in an unsavory bar and one of the most bizarre resolutions of a bar fight is about to occur. A shady looking giant of a thug, begins to manhandle “Mrs. Smith”. Bronson tries to play it off at first but he is biding his time. In a sudden furious move, he grabs the bigger foe by the testicles and picks him up and drops him. That is pretty badass right there, but this is not the kind of movie which will simply leave it at that. Bronson proceeds to drag the guy across the floor using the guy’s penis as a leash. He then twists the dick in his hand and puts his foot on the guy’s throat to force him to pass out. Most guys will not need the foot on their throat to make them feel like passing out. It’s very clear that Holland does not play nice. That attracts the attention of the Doctor’s associate, who proceeds to pick up the couple as if they are swingers looking for a little South American adventure. The bad guy seems as interested in getting it on with Bronson as he does with Saldana. It was an odd reaction to watching another guy get his junk in a twist but maybe rough trade is what makes him even sleazier. So that’s the second intriguing moment in the film.
There are a few political pretensions made by the plot. The Doctor is calling in favors from the U.S. government to negotiate on his behalf with the government, which he believes is responsible for his troubles. The claim that the U.S. would be associated with a man like the Doctor, is based on American support for anti-communist regimes in Central and South America. Many of those forces were affiliated with death squads and criminal elements. Molloch himself argues that he has acted in the interest of his client’s security needs. When Bronson starts being chased (because after all in an action film, you have to have some chases), it is by forces associated with the American counsels office. The creepy counsel and his C.I.A. associate run down Bronson, but it is simply a side trip to provide more time in the story and another bloody confrontation with our hero. John Glover looks young and unrecognizable in this role a bit earlier in his career.
Story elements are not really important at this point, this is a revenge film and you know that we are headed for a showdown. Ultimately, the comeuppance that the Doctor gets in the film would be a little more haunting if it had been shot more discretely and the camera held on Bronson and Saldana walking away. It’s never clear how the ones who meet out justice happen to all be in the same place and that they all have proof of their righteousness on their bodies in some way. The haunted look of desperation on the Doctor’s face and the slew of his victims who participate, reminded me of the end of the movie “Freaks”, as the sideshow performers come for the haughty acrobat when they discover her treachery, the echo is seen in the scarred faces and dismembered limbs of The Doctor’s former patients. Even though it strains credulity, it sure feels right and it almost works except for an extra shot of gore at the end.
Bronson looks a little to old to be as menacing as he was in the seventies. His craggy face is filled in a bit by the weight of age. But when he points a gun or heaven forbid grabs you by the balls, you know that he is not someone to be screwed with. “The Evil That Men Do” is one of nearly a dozen throw away action films he made in the eighties and early nineties. If any of you don’t know how big Bronson was at one time, consider that he was one of “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Dirty Dozen”. He costarred with Steve McQueen (the actor not the contemporary director) twice, including a great dramatic part in “The Great Escape”. Finally, I know there are a lot of fans of the Sergio Leone Westerns, he anchored “Once Upon a Time in the West“. So show a little respect, even if this isn’t going to be a classic itself.