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Messenger of Death
Tonight's Feature Presentation

MESSENGER OF DEATH (1988)

Starring: Charles Bronson, Trish Van Devere, Laurence Luckinbill, Daniel Benzali, John Ireland

Written By: Paul Jarrico Directed By: J Lee Thompson

The Short Version

To call the plot convoluted isn’t convoluted enough.

Messenger of Death = “Murder, She Wrote” with blood packets.  Close, anyway.

How can a movie with so high a body count be so bland?

The scene on the stairs is actually pretty amusing.

You watch Messenger of Death because you are a Charles Bronson fan, and that’s about it.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

FAT FREE SWISS SINGLES.

How can something shot full of so many holes and put through so much convoluted processing still be so bland?


Pairs Well With...

COORS LIGHT.

Colorado’s own.  The label says it’s beer.  It kinda tastes like beer.  I guess it’s beer?

“Don’t make us look like idiots!”


Are you a Charles Bronson fan?

The answer to this question is important.  If you are, then Messenger of Death (also called Avenging Angels, after the novel it’s adapted from, “The Avenging Angel” by Rex Burns) is worth watching on purpose, because, hey, it’s Charles Bronson, and Bronson is The Man.  (I happen to agree with you.)  If you are not, then really, you can skip it unless it happens to be on while you’re channel flipping at some point.

The opening moments of Messenger of Death are genuinely chilling.  After some ominous Latin choral theme music, we see five children playing outside.  A nasty looking pickup truck pulls up near the children.  The driver, whose face is not shown, is obviously staring at the children… and waiting.  After a minute, the kids get the creeps, and slowly retreat back into the house.

Two men get out of the truck.  One has a shotgun.

The kids try to tell their mothers (yes, plural) what’s going on, but the homespun ladies don’t seem to be concerned at first, until one spots the man with the gun very slowly ascending the path toward the house.  One woman shoos the children upstairs.  Another runs for a gun that’s empty and tries to load it.  Both women, plus a third who runs in, are shot and killed.  The gunman then goes upstairs and opens the door to the room that the children are in.  Someone has the good taste to not show us what happens inside, but it’s clear enough as the shotgun goes off. 

The entire household is dead.

It’s worth pausing for a moment here, because this opening scene stands out very clearly from the rest of the film.  Had the rest of Messenger of Death been able to maintain this level of creepy tension, it would definitely have had a shot at being an effective thriller.  Unfortunately, it will never regain the atmosphere of its first few minutes.  It may play at trying a few times, but it never pans out, and the majority of the movie ends up being a “move along” affair with little to no real dramatic tension and all the suspense of waiting for a hot dog to finish heating up in the microwave.  It’s reported that Director J Lee Thompson became ill during the filming and had his Second Unit Director take over; as time goes on, that will become obvious.

Cut to a posh restaurant, where we meet star newspaper reporter Garrett Smith (Charles Bronson) and Denver Policy Chief Barney Doyle (Daniel Benzali), who is at the moment contemplating running for Mayor, at the urging of hanger-on Homer Foxx (Laurence Luckinbill).  Their lunchtime chat is cut short, however, when the Chief gets a phone call.  It is, of course, about the murder.  He rushes to the scene, and allows his reporter pal to follow along.

This is where the convoluted mess that is Messenger of Death really begins.

As I’m sure even the most innocent of readers has guessed, Bronson’s reporter character is the type who Won’t Rest Until He Finds The Truth And The Guilty Are Punished.  I’m also sure you’ve guessed that he’s going to be better at finding clues and certainly more tenacious about following up on leads and Taking Things Seriously than any member of the actual police force. 

Structurally, this is much more of a murder “whodunit” than it is an action flick.  So basically, what we have here is a “Murder, She Wrote” type of scenario, only with Charles Bronson playing Jessica Fletcher instead of Angela Lansbury doing it.

There are, however, three pretty noteworthy differences here.

First, there’s the body count.  Already at eight within fewer than that many minutes, Messenger of Death heads into the double digits and keeps going, racking up a final tally that even Jason Voorhees fails to match in some of his movies.  Two things will shock you about this by the end.  On the one hand, you’re going to wonder how a movie that manages to rack up so high of a body count also manages to be so completely and utterly bland.  On the other hand, you’re going to marvel at the fact that with that many dead people lying around, Charles Bronson’s character doesn’t kill a single one.  Not one.  Not even the ultimate bad guy!

The second thing separating Messenger of Death from being a “Murder, She Wrote” episode is the religion, which no CBS television executive would have touched with a hundred mile cattleprod.  See, the reason that the household in the first scene had three mommies is that the Man of the House, Orville (Charles Dierkop), is a radical Mormon.  It also turns out that Orville’s father, Willis (Jeff Corey), is an even more radically Fundamentalist Mormon preacher who leads a community of exiles.  (Exiles in that they have split from the main “Compromiser” church in Utah, which, among other things, does not encourage polygamy.)  Willis, in turn, thinks that his own brother, Zenas (John Ireland), is the AntiChrist, and has something of a Hatfield-McCoy style blood feud going with him.  Yeah; like Jessica Fletcher is ever going to walk into that mess with regular advertisers to think about.

The third difference between Messenger of Death and “Murder, She Wrote” is the one that actually kills the movie.  Like any good mystery, an episode of “Murder, She Wrote” is likely to contain a red herring somewhere; maybe two for an extra special episode where they sprung for two well-known guest stars.  Messenger of Death, on the other hand, doesn’t just stop at one red herring, or even two.  No, this movie bought the entire pickling factory, and I think they have another shipload on order.  The plot twists and recasts of suspicion become so completely ridiculous that by the end of the movie, it doesn’t really matter who did it.  Seriously.  Four people are lined up waiting to have a finger literally pointed their way, and I guarantee you won’t give a damn.  Any one of them would make just as much or little sense as any other.  Indeed, the motive assigned to the guilty party is never actually discussed at any time during the movie until the moment the finger gets pointed!  It’s as though the writer had a dart and a spinning wheel with names in front of him when it came time to write the final scene.  The only thing that is clear is that all of the Mormon stuff that was supposed to make things edgier is, in the end, pretty irrelevant as anything other than a miscellaneous plot device.

For many genres – horror, straight-up action, and so on – it’s okay to jump sharks along the way for no apparent reason.  In a mystery, however, one does not have that luxury.  A mystery played for anything but laughs and farce must, in the end, have a clear trail that can be followed.  The viewer should be able to solve the mystery for reasons other than “well that one sure looks guilty!” or “that red herring smells the fishiest!”  Messenger of Death doesn’t allow for that. 

Nor does it carry the feel of thrill or suspense that is essential to any good mystery, be it on paper or on the screen.  As mentioned earlier, J Lee Thompson handed the reins over to his Second Unit Director after a while, and wow, does it ever show.  Pacing?  Forget it.  After a while, it’s just point, shoot, and move on to the next scene.  Come on; we’ve got more background reels to do!  Even during the rare action sequences, there’s just no feeling of real motion – or emotion, for that matter – at all.

This is really too bad, because at least one scene on its face deserves way better than it gets; namely, a scene wherein Bronson’s vehicle is being run down by one, then two, and then finally three tanker trucks.  This ought to be a really exciting chase, but because of how it’s filmed, the best it gets is “are you serious?” and move on.

Charles Bronson, though, is the man you expect.  Unlike pretty much everyone else in the action hero pantheon, Bronson is the true Everyman; even when he’s playing an ultimate badass (The Mechanic, Telefon), he still brings a “regular man on the street” sense to things.  That plays especially well for him here, since, as noted, Messenger of Death isn’t actually an action movie.  Sure, the picture on the poster is accurate; he really does pick up a shotgun in the movie.  Once.  To shoot at a box he knows is empty.  Beyond that, it’s only a very few fistfights.  As such, this is a stretch role for Bronson, especially during the 1980s, and that is going to be the main attraction here for his fans.

Needless to say, though, even at age 66, Bronson still proves capable of kicking ass when needed, especially during the lead-up to the final scene, which involves a beatdown down a flight of stairs that has to be seen to be fully appreciated, but which will certainly be a highlight for the Bronson fans in the crowd.

The rest of the cast is also pretty good without any complaints to be had at all.  It’s just too bad that the movie that brings them together had to end up being so convoluted and dull.

Bottom Line, Messenger of Death is a movie you only go out of your way to find if you’re a Charles Bronson fan, at which point it’s worthwhile just to see Bronson do a stretch where he doesn’t actually kill anyone.  Not an action movie, but rather a mystery thriller minus most of the thrills, Messenger of Death is a convoluted, poorly paced film that should have been far better than it turns out to be.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011

More From The Bar! | Assassination | Avenging Force | Lying in Wait |



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