Charles Bronson's Death Wish suburban, middle-aged, white-guy rage teleported into early '30s survival, the Depression carved into a proletarian mug for Walter Hill's first contemplation of machismo. Pummeling conflates working-class struggling and venting, so Bronson's taciturn "in-between" man, always on the move, jumps in the New Orleans bare-knuckles fighting circuit, weathered contours contrasted with the grinning flash of James Coburn, his backer and partner. From the start, a mix of movie-brat nostalgia for he-man posturing and modernist questioning, Hill's use of Bronson's laconic iconography decoding male aggression while longing for the years, once upon a time (in cinema), when it carried meaning. "There is no reason about it. Just money," Bronson says of his trade to Jill Ireland, a woman stranded among men and, therefore, a saintly whore; to Hill, as to mentor Peckinpah, the search of meaning in the arena is done best with the guys, Bronson, Coburn, or bemused Strother Martin, a "patching" hophead who quotes Poe and hangs out at Episcopal gospel gatherings. The plot's a William Wellman 1932 barnstormer sprawled leisurely for its wealth of period detail and reconstruction -- a waterfront rumble where the slugger (Robert Tessier) incorporates his bullet-head into the technique, gambling dens and barbershops, a bare, green room with kitty lapping milk. Hill's widescreen rectangles are adorned with diagonals, all the better to accentuate deep-focus composing into which the characters can navigate light and shadow. Still, Hill's formalist acuity is built around the canny stillness of Bronson, ambling over to stare down a caged bear at a bayou ring, steamboat in the background; Bronson empties a pistol into the bar of the slimeball who gypped him out of victory-money, yet the destruction montage culminates with the shattering his own image in the mirror. From there, friendship (or, perhaps, honor) can be restored in a private gladiatorial bout, so the the warrior can vanish back into darkness, leaving his cat to the awed mortals. With Margaret Blye, Michael McGuire, Felice Orlandi, Nick Dimitri, and Frank McRae.
--- Fernando F. Croce