All Vince Majestyk (Charles Bronson) wants to do is get his melons in. But, ole Vinnie has an insatiable need to antagonize everyone he meets, resulting in some very bad people wanting him very dead.
From 1974, Mr. Majestyk was directed by the prolific filmmaker Richard Fleischer, from a screenplay by none other than legendary crime novelist Elmore Leonard. It’s also just about the perfect Charles Bronson flick.
Vince Majestyk has quite the past. He’s a Vietnam vet and former POW who escaped from captivity, but he’s also an ex-con, who did a stretch for assault after a bar fight. Now he’s a divorcee trying to bring in a melon crop in Colorado before it rots in his fields and he goes bust.
He also has a rigid morality, as the script helpfully establishes for us viewers in the opening scene. There, we see Majestyk hire a crew of immigrants to harvest his fields for $1.40 an hour. This film was released in July of 1974 (only 12 days before Bronson’s Death Wish). In May of that year, the minimum wage in the United States went up to $2 an hour from $1.60, so right off Leonard establishes his main character as a jefe who exploits a vulnerable workforce. But, he’s got to get his melons in.
Oh, wait. That’s not right.
In the second scene, we see Majestyk stick up for a family of migrant workers who just want to use the bathroom at a gas station after a long road trip. The attendant doesn’t want to let them, and Bronson has to get tough. For their troubles, Majestyk hires the itinerant family to join the harvesting crew on his farm. That’s more like it. Now we viewers know that Majestyk is a stand-up fellow.
But, Majestyk later ends up in jail after he has a confrontation with a local hood, Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo), who wants Majestyk to use his workers instead of the crew Majestyk hired. There, Majestyk crosses paths with mob hitman Frank Renda (Al Lettieri), who has been nabbed by the local cops. It’s also here that viewers should begin to notice that Majestyk is horrible at de-escalation. Every interaction this guy seems to have with other people ends in confrontation. Sure, the people he makes his enemies aren’t the nicest people on the planet, but Majestyk revels in getting under everyone’s skin. He really is kind of a dick. But, he’s just got to get his melons in. It’s a persistent theme.
Renda’s mob associates decide to stage an escape while he and the other prisoners, including Majestyk, are being transported. After a massive gun battle in the streets, Majestyk and Renda end up on the run together, but apparently Leonard didn’t like where that storyline was going because, and I shit you not, within fifteen minutes of running time both Renda and Majestyk are free men with no charges for escape hanging over their heads. It’s absurd.
As happens with everyone whom with Majestyk crosses paths, Renda would love nothing more than to kill him. Being a mobster, instead of just letting his rage fester and then fade, he can do something about it. The remainder of the film, encompassing the entire second half, features Renda and Majestyk going to war against each other, with the local cops on the sidelines like fans at a football game. Did I mention this movie was absurd?
It’s not a bad movie, though. The script is uneven in the first half, but has good focus in the second. By then, character development is no longer necessary, and the cast can get around to shooting guns at each other.
I’m not sure that what Bronson was doing in the 1970s could be called acting. He stood in front of a camera and said lines, and he even moved around if the director told him to. He was stony-faced and grim, and didn’t bother with being any kind of natural. Really, though, he’s no different from most tough guy leads throughout Hollywood history, and some folks, including me, still like his movies.
Lettieri was near the very end of his career in this movie, dying about a year after its release. His Renda is perpetually angry, a hothead, the opposite of the steady mover he played in The Godfather. The constant rage doesn’t serve the character all that well, reducing him to a mob caricature. However, I think that’s more Leonard and Fleischer’s fault than Lettieri’s. Perhaps he didn’t want to play a cartoon character.
So, Mr. Majestyk is a decent diversion, should one be in the mood for some silliness. It’s a prime example of Hollywood simplicity, and I find it funny that it came from Elmore Leonard.