MGM // 1988 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // March 7th, 2003
What the cops can't do, he will. (Meaning...what, exactly?)
A fairly large family (we're talking double digits here) of really strict Mormons (which is possibly a pleonasm) is killed in brutally cold claret. The police are baffled. The grieving widower is decidedly flat nosed. But when 108-year-old cub reporter Garrett Smith lands on the case with a hip-breaking thud, he uncovers a Chinatown style scandal involving politics, family feuding, and water rights. Relying on the skills he's developed in over a century of investigative reporting, he decides to pursue some vigilante style journalistic justice by eventually stumbling upon the truth, once the killer confesses and kills himself. Seems a bunch of blood feuding bigamists are slaughtering each other over the doctrine of religious purification by unbridled reproduction and mass murder. Sitting back and watching it all take place is a bunch of rejects from the Algonquin round table who sip Scotch and wonder aloud about the sterilization of the poor. Apparently, once all the angry multiple married types finish shot gunning each other, Arkansas grudge match style, the rich rats will swoop down and scream dibs over their fluid fat peach juice orchards. With the help of a fifth cousin, several matrimonies removed, and an unlimited amount of local single engine frequent flier miles, Garrett traverses the entire state of Colorado in hopes of uncovering the cabal. But all he finds are plot convolutions, unbelievable coincidences, and an R.S.V.P. from the Messenger of Death.
For its first ten minutes, Messenger of Death is a genuinely creepy film. The opening sequence, which meticulously walks us through the mass murder of an entire family, from wives to children, is disturbing. And the imagery is very effective: the serene mountainside home; the strangers cast in black shadows, camera lingering on them to heighten the effect; the slowly, methodical walk of the killer around the home, bringing bloody mayhem with the pump and a blast of a shotgun. The stillness and calm of the surroundings as the bad men take off in their truck. Everything is in place for a taut, highly charged thriller. And then they have to go and throw Charles Bronson's aged ass into the mix and ruin the whole movie. Now, this misstep is not all Chuck's fault. At the time of its making, Bronson was riding a successful, Steven Segal style wave of popularity. He was an elder statesman action hero (with the emphasis on elder, even though he was only in his 60s), with films like 10 to Midnight, The Evil That Men Do, and, of course, the plethora of Death Wish sequels to his curmudgeonly credit. He was also a controversial figure, a kind of indirect Tarantino of his day, as accusations flew fiercely about the level of mean spirited gore and violence in his mostly hack B-films. But thanks to those twin towers of tackiness, international motion picture scam artists Golan and Globus, Master Charlie braved the criticism and continued to pump out the primed for direct to video sales releases. Not surprisingly, Messenger of Death comes right at the tale end of the tolerable trash titles.
There is actually a very interesting story playing out here, that is, if you remove it from its Hatfields vs. McCoys vs. the Hoi Polloi roots. A look at the ultra-conservative New Zion sect of Mormonism has the makings for an effective and inventive thriller backdrop. And the casting is choice, with character actors Charles Dierkop (Flat Nose Curley from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), Jeff Corey (Craccus from The Sword and the Sorcerer), and John Ireland (a B-movie legend) standing in for the feuding family members within the church. Even if it degenerates into a kind of backwoods standoff as scathing religious debate, there is still an untapped resource of potential drama and intrigue present in their belief system. But the minute the police chief as mayoral candidate, the fast-talking power broker, and his misfit cast of drunk and clichéd socialites show up, the movie goes painfully askew. As an audience, you keep wondering why these egotistical social climbers with their bad hairdos and snooty attitudes keep showing up, uninvited, to the storyline. It's only about 35 minutes in that you realize they may (and eventually are) actually part of the story, the red and real herrings off to the side of all the fussing and a fighting going on between the clans. For a movie that wants to position itself as a tense, psychological suspense thriller revolving around bigamy, fundamentalism, and religious zealotry, this script constantly sidesteps the entire issue to concentrate on campaign strategies, Beefeater martinis, and easements. By the time we discover the link between the blue bloods, the dead people, and the fracasing kinfolk, we've lost all interest in the outcome or reveal. Messenger of Death just doesn't have enough faith in its "faith" to maintain audience interest. What they hoped to accomplish by inviting in the quintessential Hollywood vigilante is anyone's guess.
Poor Charles Bronson. It really is sad. At this point in his career he is so old that his crow's feet dig deep into the Earth's mantle and his jowls quiver as if over filled with mushy oatmeal. Never once do we believe that he is a muckraking journalist on a quest for the truth. He seems stuck in that tired old Death Wish mode, always acting in a strangely silent, cold and calculated pissed off vigilante with a score to settle. He could be instructed to project an older, more decrepit Geraldo Rivera or hypnotized into thinking he's the Captain of the Starship Enterprise. But no matter the direction, he would merely transform into that wax museum maniac Paul Kersey, stalking the streets of Manhattan in a blasé attempt at killing a believe-it-or-not once young Jeff Goldblum. Here, saddled with the oddly non-entity name of Garret Smith, Bronson is not a reporter so much as he is another justice-wielding faux cop with a press pass instead of a badge. He can witness the investigation for clues at bloody, vicious crime scenes. He has access to unlimited local air transportation and State Police support. And he is apparently such a big deal hotshot reporter that officials bend over each other trying to wine, dine, and fulfill his personal and professional needs. Yet his methods are as painful to endure as bed sore inspection day at the nursing home. The fact is it takes our slow moving hero 81 deadly dull minutes to solve what should have been just a short five minute side trip to the public records microfiche for him to figure out. This underscores the derivative nature of Bronson's performance and this movie. Messenger of Death strives to be a controversial look at a bizarre religious cult and corporate shenanigans with a little Cain and Abel mixed in for good measure. Instead, it's a waterlogged Greyhound bus ride to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's violent stand-ins.
It's a shame, then, that MGM wastes such a wonderful transfer on this puke of a DVD title. Messenger of Death, while being static, entertainment-wise, is a real pleasure to behold visually. The mountains of Colorado and director J. Lee Thompson's sweeping, near epic compositions are intact and alive in a vibrant 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The image is just startling, presenting beautiful vistas and powerful landscapes for the eye to drink in. Also good is the sound. Several scenes in the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix contain distant dogs barking and the effect is eerie. Also well handled, from a sonic perspective, are the car/truck chases (the only bit of action in the film). The speakers shake with full metal menace as the Duel inspired road rage scenes between hero and villains play out onscreen. On the downside, the only extras we get are a full screen flip disc offering of the film (which makes its made for television mentality that much more palatable, if not more watchable) and a trailer, which sells this misguided movie as a sort of Death Wish Meets Brigham Young amalgamation. For many of the characters in the film, the angel of death is not an evil mortality menace, but a sweet spirit, providing God's power of love at the end of a sword. It's too bad the audience cannot partake of its homicide-based grace and meet their maker instead of having to watch this dreary, obtuse movie. The only thing this Messenger of Death delivers is painful tedium.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R