Clarksville, Pennsylvania, 1968: miner's union rabble-rouser and family man Jock Yablonski (Charles Bronson) is outraged when eighty mine workers die in a collapsed tunnel on account of company negligence. Even more so after corrupt union boss Tony Boyle (Wilford Brimley) appears on television to clear the company of any wrongdoing. To set things right, Yablonski puts himself forth as a candidate in the next leadership election with the support of his stalwart wife Margaret (Ellen Burstyn) and children. Despite facing an uphill struggle, he has the support of the average working man, something that drives jittery Boyle to seek help from ruthless right-hand man Silous Huddleston (country singer Hoyt Axton, who played Billy's dad in Gremlins (1984)). Huddleston employs three inept assassins including his dysfunctional son-in-law Paul Gilly (Robert Schenkkan) to take out a contract on Jock Yablonski's life.
Throughout most of the Eighties iconic action star Charles Bronson was seemingly content to crank out formulaic exploitation films for the sake of a quick pay check to build up his art collection. Yet it was a different case with Act of Vengeance, a sobering and for the most part low key made for TV movie that marked a chance for him to flex his acting muscles as an all too vulnerable, albeit no less formidable hero. Based on a true story, the role of the crusader for miner's rights likely stirred something personal in Bronson who had himself toiled in coal mines throughout his youth, an experience that by all accounts was quite traumatic. Here old stony-face sinks his teeth into a meaty role as the granite embodiment of plain-spoken integrity. He even shaved off his trademark moustache! His success here pointed the way to a run of more challenging roles in Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus (1991), Jack London adaptation The Sea Wolf (1993) and most memorably a powerful turn in Sean Penn's searing drama The Indian Runner (1991), although sadly he eventually drifted back into routine action fare.
"Jock Yablonski is a hammer" roar his supporters and the film all but endorses him as a candidate for sainthood much as it presents Tony Boyle as an out-and-out monster. A bigoted, foul mouthed oaf whose hubris blinds him to any sense of responsibility towards his fellow miners. Although solidly handled by British filmmaker John Mackenzie, director of seminal gangster film The Long Good Friday (1980), the script authored by Scott Spencer, writer behind the treacly teen romance Endless Love filmed in 1981 and remade in 2014, suffers from a wayward narrative. In a conceit foreshadowing Mackenzie's Frederick Forsyth thriller The Fourth Protocol (1987) the plot divides screen time between tragic hero and oily assassin. The knock-on effect paints Paul Gilly, a downtrodden, sexually dysfunctional loser cuckholded by his trampy wife and browbeaten by his father-in-law, as a more complex character. Yet unnecessary digressions like the incident wherein gun-happy goon Claude Vealey (Maury Chaykin) accidentally shoots his own girlfriend and Paul enjoying oral services from his wife sap momentum from the more potent, politically charged main plot. Annette Gilly is portrayed by a young Ellen Barkin while none other than a young Keanu Reeves takes the role of the young hoodlum who finally faces down Yablonski.
Set in the era of Jimmy Hoffa the film unsettles through its casual acceptance of union corruption and sanctioned murder as the practiced norm. Yet Mackenzie elaborates what is actually a fairly slight plot spending most attention on the ineptitude of the three hired killers. The film really shows how grueling a task it is to bring yourself to shoot someone. The killers head up to the Yablonski house several times only to end up in a sweat, panic and lose their nerve. After the violence Mackenzie ill-advisedly wraps up the story with an unsatisfying and hasty postscript when it could have been incorporated into the drama. Somewhat amusingly, a few home video editions tried to sell this serious true life drama as a Death Wish cash-in with cover art featuring a gun-toting Bronson. You can bet Keanu would have had second thoughts about going up against Bronson in Death Wish mode but fans should be glad the producers hired Mackenzie for this story rather than Michael Winner. Can you imagine the movie he might have made?