After tough New York detective Lou Torrey (Charles Bronson) lands in hot water for shooting and killing a teenage cop killer, he moves to Los Angeles and gets a job with the LAPD. Working under an unsympathetic supervisor (Norman Fell), saddled with an incompetent partner (Ralph Waite), and surrounded by paper pushing bureaucrats, Torrey still tries to uphold the law and dispense justice whenever he can. When a heroin dealer is murdered while in Torrey’s custody, Torrey suspects that it might be a part of a larger conspiracy, involving mobster Al Vescari (Martin Balsam).
Vescari is plotting something big. It has been nearly 40 since the “Sicilian Vespers,” the day when Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Busy Siegel killed all of the original mafia dons at the same time. Viscari has invited mafia leaders from across the country to attend a special anniversary dinner. During the dinner, all of Vescari’s rivals will be assassinated. To keep things a secret, Vescari will not be using any of his usual hitmen. Instead, he has contracted a group of mentally unstable Vietnam vets, led by Lawrence (Stuart Margolin).
Charles Bronson has always been an underrated film star. His legacy has been tarnished by the cheap films he made for Cannon and, unlike Clint Eastwood, he never got a chance to really take control of his career and reinvent his image. But during the 1970s, not even Clint Eastwood was a more convincing action star than Charles Bronson. Bronson may have never been a great actor but he was an authentic tough guy with a physical presence that dominated the screen.
It was during this period that Bronson made his first four movies with director Michael Winner. Though Death Wish and The Mechanic are the best known, The Stone Killer may be the best. Tough, gritty, and action-packed with a great car chase, The Stone Killer was filmed on location in Los Angeles and some of the best parts are just the scenes of Bronson awkwardly interacting with the local, California culture. If you have ever wanted to see Charles Bronson deal with a bunch of hippies, this is the film to see. The Stone Killer also has more of social conscience than the usual 70s cop film, with Bronson’s character not only condemning excessive police brutality but also his racist partner.
(Ironically, Bronson and Winner would follow The Stone Killer with Death Wish, a film that many critics condemned as being racist and which suggested that the police were not being brutal enough.)
The other thing that sets The Stone Killer apart is that it has a great cast, featuring several actors who would go on to find success on television. Balsam, Fell, and especially Waite and Margolin are all great. Keep an eye out for a very young John Ritter, playing one of the only cops in the film who is not portrayed as being either corrupt or incompetent.
Though it may not be as well-known as some of his other action films, The Stone Killer is one of Bronson’s best.