The story of Jock Yablonsky (Charles Bronson) and his family's fight to overturn the corrupt leader of the United Mine Worker's Union, Tony Boyle (Wilford Brimley).
It's a curious mixture of strengths and weaknesses. It is, of course, hampered by the plot, which happens to be as true as these "based on a true story" movies get to be. I don't know what conversation Bronson had with his wife (Ellen Burstyn) and his daughter (Carolyne Kava) had before they went to bed on the night of their murders. Nobody does, so the lacunae are filled with plausible exchanges of love and mutual confidence. It heightens the drama anyway. A loving family slaughtered. Suppose they'd had a drunken argument and thrown muffin cups at one another? Not that the assassination itself needs much hype. It's pretty shocking. Three skanks open a window of Yablonsky's well-appointed country house during Christmas, have petty disagreements in whispers, and finally bring themselves to pull the triggers. The air crackles with tension.
The dialog isn't in any way offensive, and the acting in general is at least up to par. Bronson gives a laid-back performance, and Ellen Burstyn does the most convincing job of all. Maury Chaykin is excellent as the chubbiest, if not the dumbest, of the three or four hoods, constantly bickering over who gets how much and who shoots first.
There are some good scenes too, besides the shocking executions. Here's Maury Chaykin lying in bed in his shorts, smoking, drinking beer, twirling his borrowed pistol around and going BANG as he points it at objects. One of the objects is his exasperated girl friend and there is, how you say, an accidental discharge? He gapes with the uncomprehending expression of some kind of poleaxed steer as she slumps to the floor with a hole in her belly.
Another fascinating scene has the leader of the goons, an amateur gun nut, lying in bed with his wife, Ellen Barkin. We've been told he's nuts about her, but she pretends to be asleep while he squeezes her various body parts and gets off by means of what the French call "frottage." But after money is mentioned, Barkin becomes a combination of Delilah and Lady MacBeth. "Come on, honey," she coaxes him, while kissing her way down his ribs, "it won't be so hard. You can kill him in a parking lot."
The weakness is in the plot itself, which is stuck with an ordinary tale of a man who is (almost) all good being killed by guys who are (entirely) all bad. The narrative is about how Bronson alienates himself from the leaders of the corrupt union, challenges them in an election, and when the rigged results come in, declares that he's going to challenge the election in court. Bronson starts out as just another high-echelon conniver, one of Brimley's tools. But his conversion to rectitude is quick -- too quick. It took a long time for Eva Marie Saint and Karl Malden to turn Marlon Brando around in "On The Waterfront." Here, it takes about two minutes of screen time.
It would also have been interesting to learn just what "corruption" means in the context of union management. Only one hint is given. Nothing is said about "laundered money," and that's something I've always been curious about. I once left a dollar bill in the pocket of some trousers I washed, but aside from that I'm ignorant. A little frustrating.
It's strange to see Bronson playing a role like this. He's usually the hero, true enough, but in this movie he gets belted in the stomach and falls to his knees, and at the end he's shot many times. Never once does he make a wisecrack to some overconfident street rat and then clip him on the jaw. There is no speeding car chase, no exploding fireball. Without those things, Bronson is hardly Bronson.