That’s the question that’s examined in this short documentary. Filled with scenes from Bronson’s films and clips of the tight-lipped interviews that he gave throughout his career, Charles Bronson, Hollywood’s Lone Wolf takes a look at Bronson’s life and film persona. It attempts to explain the appeal of a notoriously inexpressive actor who, unlike many of his contemporaries, never went out of his way to win any popularity contests. Unfortunately, the documentary struggles to tell us much that we didn’t already know about Bronson. Even when, after years of trying, he finally became a Hollywood superstar, Bronson was still known for keeping to himself. Much like the characters that he played, Bronson was someone who kept his feeling under wrap. Lacking any contemporary interviews with the people who knew Bronson and who worked with him, the documentary often has to rely on what Bronson said and, unfortunately, Bronson never said much.
Another problem with the documentary is that it doesn’t seem to have been made by people who actually liked Charles Bronson’s films. While Once Upon A Time In The West, The Mechanic, and Rider on the Rain are all rightfully praised, Death Wish is dismissed as reactionary and many of the films that he made in the 70s — including some of his best, like From Noon Till Three, Raid on Entebbe, and Telefon — are ignored all together. While it’s true that Bronson’s films were rarely critically acclaimed, doesn’t it seem like a documentary about Charles Bronson should be made by people who actually dig his movies?
The documentary is at its best when it examines how much of Bronson’s career was fueled by his own bitterness towards his poverty-stricken childhood and the many years in which Hollywood refused to give him decent roles. Bronson comes across as being surly, a little bit mean, and not someone to mess around with. At the same time, when he’s with his second wife, Jill Ireland, Bronson seems like a totally different man. He actually smiles! Ireland brought out Bronson’s nice side. With Ireland, Bronson relaxes in a way that most of the characters that he played would never have allowed himself to. After Ireland’s death in 1990, Bronson is described as having been devastated but he subsequently used that pain to give one of his best performances, in Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner.
The documentary ends by noting that Quentin Tarantino dedicated Kill Bill Volume 1 to his memory. No one, we’re told, knows how Bronson would have felt about it. That sounds about right. I think that really was what made Charles Bronson a superstar. No one knew what he was thinking but everyone wanted to find out.