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Could there be a Charles Bronson in our new century? Bronson as superstar? Doubtful. Though Sean Penn aptly cast him in The Indian Runner, Bronson's a man from a different, more complex time in movies. The 1920-born toughie of Lithuanian heritage, former coal-miner, and World War II B-29 tail-gunner was — and always has been — an unusual movie star. It's odd to think that this real-life bad boy entered the Pasadena Playhouse school and eventually wound up in TV and movies, usually as an ethnic ruffian. He played the lead in Roger Corman's Machine Gun Kelly (1958) and was terrific in The Magnificent Seven (1960), but he left America for a popular career in, of course, Europe — that continent that seems to understand our offbeat talents and strengths better than we do. Looking at Bronson as the simultaneously beautiful and grotesque versions of true Americana (just like film noir, Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rourke), he was called in France le sacre monstre and in Italy Il Brutto. Not even the talented and inarguably good-looking Benicio Del Toro gets that kind of serious worldwide cred. But critics and moviegoers found Bronson sexy — a craggy-yet-exotic animal of brains and brawn. After European acclaim, he gained mass appeal in America, particularly with Death Wish and other pictures of varied quality. One of those picture's is Tom Gries' Breakout (1975), a picture that boasts a great cast (Robert Duvall, Randy Quaid, and John Huston), a perfect '70s tone, but not much of a script. Playing pilot Nick Colton, Bronson is given an almost impossible task — to break Jay Wagner (Duvall) out of an unpleasant Mexican prison. Wagner, framed by his grandfather (Huston), is unjustly held, and Wagner's wife (Jill Ireland, Bronson's real-life wife who appeared in over a dozen films with him) hires Colton for the job. What proceeds are many shots of a wordless, depressed Duvall, a hot Ireland wearing a foxy blonde wig while getting a crush on Bronson, Quaid (as Bronson's goofy sidekick) in one scene trying to pass as a Mexican woman (?!), and a slutty trailer-trash chick openly lusting for our hero. The climax is unimpressive, and the film is rarely tense or truly exciting (leave that to Gries' 1976 TV mini-series milestone Helter Skelter). Still, there's something about the sweat-stained, sad swagger of Bronson that makes this film infinitely watchable — he's not the greatest actor, not in the league of the magnificent face actors like Steve McQueen, but he certainly had something fascinating to look at. Bronson's just so believably crusty, believably good-willed, and believably virile that his grizzled face was made for the big screen. You'd think he'd play sleazy after all these years, but he doesn't — there's a core of goodness to the sexy beast that makes it understandable why women got all hot and bothered over this foxy/ugly hombre. Ireland certainly found him exciting: She had seven children with him. "Il Brutto" indeed. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Breakout presents a fine anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital audio in English and French, and an array of subtitles. Keep-case.
—Kim Morgan

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