Descend into parody or live long enough to watch yourself become boring.
By 1986, Charles Bronson had worked with director J. Lee Thompson on five films — St. Ives (1976), The White Buffalo (1977), Cabo Blanco (1980), 10 to Midnight (1983), and The Evil That Men Do (1984). These collaborations contain brief moments of humor, either to provide relief after a grim moment or to offer a brief glimpse into a character’s motivations, but none are truly comedies. St. Ives and Cabo Blanco are fun, if formulaic crime and adventure films, The White Buffalo is Moby Dick re-envisioned as a bizarre mash-up of an acid Western and a monster movie, and 10 to Midnight and The Evil That Men Do sleazy cousins to Bronson’s Death Wish franchise. Their sixth film, Murphy’s Law (1986), is something else entirely.
Conceived as both a comedy and an action film, the movie tries to replicate the buddy cop formula of 48 Hours (1982). This sounds normal, I know. Imitators littered video store shelves throughout the eighties. Some were even successful working within the limitations of the formula (notably Running Scared ). But Murphy’s Law isn’t one of those films. This movie is what happens when you drop Charles Bronson into the middle of a screwball comedy but allow him to keep his zeal for indiscriminate murder. It’s what happens when Charles Bronson is cast opposite Edward Fox in a Day of the Jackal (1973) remake but J. Lee Thompson decides that would be too on the nose so he casts Jane Curtin as the villain instead. It’s what happens when a studio can’t decide between funding a sleazy, low-budget 48 Hours clone or a sequel to Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) so they split the difference and call it Murphy’s Law.
Bronson stars as Jack Murphy, an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck detective. His wife has left him — as wives are wont to do — to pursue a career as a stripper and a romantic relationship with her boss at the club. He’s also hunting a mafioso’s brother and, unusual for a homicide detective, a teenage street-urchin-slash-car-thief. But Jack is a simple man, one who improvises quick solutions to complex problems. When the mafioso muses to Jack about his surname and its proximity to the old adage about luck, Jack responds by stating he has his a version of his own: “Don’t fuck with Jack Murphy!”
Who would mess with a man like that? Serial killer — and woman! — Joan Freeman, of course. One of the things that separates Murphy’s Law from other action-trash and thrillers of the era, inexplicably, is its female villain. Astonished eighties critics cited actress Carrie Snodgress as an odd choice for a Bronson villain because of her gender. Would Clint Eastwood fight a woman? Well, there was that one about the obsessive stalker. But Snodgress’s Joan Freeman isn’t actually that far out of the norm for eighties villains; she’s of-a-pair with Gene Davis’s Warren Stacy from previous Bronson/Thompson collab 10 to Midnight. They’re less fully-fleshed characters than emotionless husks, avatars for the kind of remorseless monsters America was becoming acquainted with in the news during the late seventies and early eighties as men and, yes, women like Gerald and Charlene Gallego began popping up in cities and towns on a seemingly monthly basis. Snodgress is also the only actor to ground the film in anything resembling reality. Where Bronson mugs, Snodgress holds a steady hand and delivers an icy portrayal of a knowing psychopath. If any comedy results from her performance, it’s not because of her but instead from the bizarre situations Thompson and screenwriter Gail Morgan Hickman place her in, like when she honeypots a detective and then drowns him in a bathtub by simply lifting his feet in the air.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine Hickman not using the script as an opportunity to riff on another buddy cop movie he wrote. In the early seventies, Hickman pitched the story for The Enforcer (1976) to Warner Brothers, who turned it into a Dirty Harry vehicle. In that film, the question of gender is mostly serious. The liberal eggheads in City Hall foist affirmative action on Harry Callahan and force him to take on a female partner. Men and women! Working together!? Fortunately, Callahan develops a begrudging respect for Tyne Daly’s Kate Moore after she proves herself capable. Not so in Murphy’s Law. In this film, Hickman clearly relishes the opportunity for parody. Jack Murphy abducts a teenage car thief and forces her to help him prove his innocence after he’s accused of murder. He accomplishes this by insulting, threatening, and occasionally even dragging her along for the ride. The car thief (Kathleen Wilhoite) does little to actually help Murphy beyond getting in his way but she does learn something about herself after his repeated taunts wear down her self-confidence and better judgment.
If this article seems overwhelmingly negative, please forgive me. Murphy’s Law isn’t a bad film. It exists beyond concepts like “good” and “bad.” It’s the kind of inspired incoherence that could only come from an aging action hero limping into the final stage of his career and looking to squeeze a few dollars more out of his audience by introducing tonally inappropriate comedy into his hypermasculine shtick (see also: ‘90s Stallone, Schwarzenegger, etc.). The comedic joys one derives from a movie like Murphy’s Law are a direct result of the director, the writer, and the star miscalculating what is funny — a teenager and a sexagenarian vomiting insults at each other that would leave Punky Brewster’s writing team scratching their heads, or a distinctly Bronsonian line reading of the words “On a barn.” They’re both treasures, and we enjoy them precisely because they work against expectations.
Sadly, like much of Bronson’s back catalog, Murphy’s Law is a film which hasn’t yet found its audience. The cult of Bronson worships at the Temple of Kersey, and rightly so. What scant attention critics pay to the actor’s work is focused on rehabbing his image by pointing out how integral he was to the artistic success of “good” films like The Dirty Dozen (1967), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and Hard Times (1975). This does the man a disservice. He was an actor of feral intensity, one best suited to stalking dark alleys and derelict buildings. He often looked reserved or resigned but could quickly descend into an animal-like state, that granite face cracking just enough to reveal a gargoyle seething with rage. Limiting Bronson’s achievements to his acclaimed films and roles robs him of his power as an actor. He found his calling in trash-action and pulp thrillers because those are the places few men can dwell believably. Bronson never looked out of place as a cop or a vigilante in the decaying urban hellworlds he inhabited. He always carried himself like a soldier dutifully trudging through society’s waste. Frequently he took this as a literal command, selecting roles which allowed him to cut through hordes of pimps, rapists, and drug dealers, but occasionally, as in Murphy’s Law, he turned that anger inward on himself.
The most fascinating aspect of the film is Bronson’s performance. He’s trying his hand at comedy, yes, but it’s a surprisingly dark turn given how light-hearted it appears upon first glance. Rather than playing a man awakened to the horrors of the world, Bronson plays Jack Murphy as someone already destroyed by them and determined to drag everyone else down with him. After a quick chase scene, Thompson begins the film on Bronson in bed, by himself. He wakes up and quietly goes about his routine, but we quickly realize this man isn’t a Paul Kersey. This man’s wife is gone, but she isn’t dead. She chose to leave him and, as a result, he’s consumed by self-loathing. Jack Murphy has none of the swagger or machismo of a Paul Kersey.
What’s more, the scene lingers long past the point of comfort. Bronson brushes his teeth, puts on a coat, leads a mundane and boring life. He does the things we never see in other films; he, however briefly, inhabits the body of a human being. It’s unexpected and grants his character a rare gravitas that isn’t dependent upon seeing a family member or friend murdered. It allows us a glimpse into the lives of the men Bronson plays after their stories end — the alcoholism, the failed relationships, the crushing loneliness turned into resentment. And it works because even in a trash-action comedy like this Bronson is a nimble actor capable of expressing a variety of emotions with a single glare. The movie quickly sends him chasing after an assortment of comical goons and he’s ready with a stupid quip for each one (“Ladies first!”) but there’s a sense of self-awareness hiding beneath the surface. Bronson is playing a knowing parody of himself. In one scene he might reflect on how wrong his life has gone as he watches the people who have abandoned him or want to abandon him, while in another he’ll take glee in making those same people miserable by tossing off a mean-spirited jab.
Murphy’s Law reads like an extended riff on Bronson’s eighties status as an action hero whose star was fading. The jokes that do work come at the expense of critics who viewed him as a monosyllabic goon. Jack Murphy is a gun-toting psychopath with a badge, but he’s well aware of that and on some level relishes the hatred the world heaps on him because, in the estimation of Thompson, Hickman, and Bronson, the world is far worse than Murphy could ever be. Progress is a tricky concept — are things getting better, or are they just different — and Murphy’s Law enjoys attacking the idea that progress is always good. Bronson may now have a partner and a new enemy, and they might even be women, but scumbags are still scumbags no matter how many times you shoot them and new ones show up. Which is why Bronson sticks to his guns. Literally. The only time he conveys anything resembling joy is when he’s shooting something. Some things never change. They only get more absurd with age.
Really, though, it should be clear that whatever message Murphy’s Law is trying to impart is secondary to the body count. This is an eighties Charles Bronson movie, after all. A surprisingly funny one, a relentlessly grim and mean-spirited one, but an eighties Charles Bronson movie all the same. It might occasionally attempt to break from the monotony of low-budget action cliches but it’s still doggedly focused on never breaking that one rule of all good late-period Bronson films. That one law. Bronson’s law. Don’t fuck with Charles Bronson.