Secret service agent Jay Killion (Charles Bronson) is unhappily assigned to safeguard the President’s wife, Lara Royce Craig (Jill Ireland), a snooty, hard-nosed feminist who rubs the gruff FBI man up the wrong way. The First Lady is similarly unimpressed when Killion accidentally injures her eye whilst protecting her from an assassination attempt. It transpires, Mrs. Craig is very unpopular around Washington, widely dismissed as a flighty Hollywood bimbo and “a bad influence on the President.” In the wake of several bombings and other murder attempts foiled by Killion, the troublesome Lara goes on the run. It’s down to Killion and his team to keep Lara safe from harm and find out who really wants her dead.
Having penned the moody, mystical western The White Buffalo (1977), novelist turned screenwriter Richard Sale wrote another, altogether larkier vehicle for Charles Bronson. Assassination was the last in a string of movies pairing Bronson with his real life wife Jill Ireland. At the time, Ms. Ireland had just recovered from a brush with cancer. Evidently the couple felt like celebrating with something fun and frothy, although sadly the illness would claim her life a few years later. At the helm was Peter Hunt, returning to the Bronson fold after directing the uneven Death Hunt (1981). One of the finest editors in British cinema, Hunt virtually invented the modern action film with his innovative cutting on From Russia with Love (1963) and later directed the famously unappreciated-now-classic On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Aside from one shockingly sloppy moment when a gun-toting extra appears to die twice, Hunt’s skill ensures the film races by, so while it is often silly with a plot that does not bear close scrutiny, it is fairly action packed and never dull.
What unfolds is an oddball precursor to In the Line of Fire (1993) by way of Guarding Tess (1994), a battle of the sexes that draws the tough agent and gutsy First Lady closer together, although not romantically. Somewhat surprisingly, Ireland is not Bronson’s love interest in this movie. By this stage Bronson was very much the elder statesman among action heroes, so the film plays up his benevolent, paternal influence on the younger agents. Particularly on vivacious Chinese-American female agent, Charlie (Jan Gan Boyd), who clearly fancies a slice of well-aged beefcake. Charlie keeps throwing herself at the sixty-seven year old in rather embarrassing fashion until he finally relents. After an implied exhausting night, the old guy wearily responds to her demand for a serious relationship with this priceless line: “I don’t want to die from a terminal orgasm.” Yuck.
By contrast Ireland’s First Lady is drawn as so rude, belligerent and selfish, one suspects Richard Sale was out to make a point. “She’ll make you miss Nancy Reagan”, warns Killian’s superior (Stephen Elliot), one of the screenplay’s many thinly veiled barbs at the then-current First Lady, who by all accounts was a right pain in ass. Conspicuous by his absence is the President himself, although actor Charles Howerton is listed as playing him in the credits, the character never appears onscreen. The big twist is that the president is impotent. Nope, not politically impotent, they mean really impotent. While it is debatable whether that would ever matter in real-life politics, here it is enough to convince the mystery villain a widower has more chance of being re-elected than a president who can’t, ahem, raise the flag.
Still lean and fit in his autumn years, Bronson displays vigour to match the steroid-enhanced action men then dominating the global box office. Notably whilst firing a rocket launcher from a roaring motorcycle. Ireland’s finest, or silliest moment depending on your view, occurs when she sneaks away from her secret service detail disguised in a curly brown wig as a finger-snapping hipster. That scene encapsulates the tone of overall, as does Bronson’s amusing encounter with a grumpy Native American used car salesman who sells him a dune buggy. It wasn’t a proper Cannon film without a dune buggy chase.