Coming towards the end of his Cannon Films period, this Charles Bronson vehicle marked the craggy action star’s eighth and penultimate collaboration with veteran J. Lee Thompson. An ominous score by Robert O. Ragland imparts a strong horror movie vibe but Messenger of Death is a peculiar mix of conspiracy thriller and modern day western. Its opening scene evokes memories of a real Bronson classic, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), as bad guys in cowboy hats surround an isolated farmhouse and gun down helpless Mormon women and children. The sequence is shocking without being unnecessarily explicit and is well-staged by Thompson.
Bronson plays crusading journalist Garrett Smith. Arriving alongside politically-ambitious Police Chief Doyle (Daniel Benzali), just as bereaved father Orville (Charles Dierkop) is taken into protective custody, Smith discovers a symbolic “avenging angel” left behind at the crime scene. This leads him to a fiercely isolated Mormon community run by Orville’s father Willis Beecham (a wildly overacting Jeff Corey), a fire and brimstone preacher who claims his estranged brother Zenas Beecham (John Ireland) is behind the massacre. Smith travels to North Colorado where he allies himself with small town newspaper editor Jastra Watson (Trish Van Devere), who just happens to be Zenas’ cousin (“That’s what happens with multiple marriages - everyone is a cousin!”). Zenas maintains Willis killed his own grandchildren, leaving Smith to ponder whether their blood feud has got out of control or whether someone else is responsible.
Fiction writers have had an uneasy relationship with the Mormon community ever since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made them villains in his Sherlock Holmes adventure A Study in Scarlet. While Messenger of Death does not deliver scenes where Charles Bronson kicks Mormon butt, there is the whiff of tabloid hysteria about the shifty, gun-toting rednecks that populate Willis’ commune where he delivers sermons imploring the faithful to smite all enemies with no mercy. However, this is counterbalanced by Zenas coming across as a fairly decent sort with a warm, welcoming family. Paul Jarrico’s screenplay, adapted from the novel “The Avenging Angel” by Rex Burns, drops details about Mormon food and customs though without the depth Peter Weir brought to his portrayal of the Amish in Witness (1985).
Eventually a shady alliance between big business and politicians are revealed as the real culprits, using religious fundamentalism to their advantage, although the climax sidesteps blaming rich folks too much in favour of a pantomime villain. Thompson stages a suspenseful car chase where Smith is sandwiched between two rampaging trucks, but his lack of subtlety pitches some of the hardboiled drama into camp. Bronson, giving one of his more committed performances from this period, essays a largely laidback, soft-spoken hero compared with his Death Wish movies, but reverts to type when threatened. Frankly, we wouldn’t want it any other way. Fans will relish his climactic brawl with a mass-murdering assassin.