Fresh out of jail, cigar-chomping reformed cat burglar, ex-Green Beret and (according to one character) musical prodigy (?!) Jake Sebastian Turner (Fred Williamson) reunites with his loyal wife Sabrina (Sandy Cummings). Though Sabrina’s cocaine addiction gives Jake some concern it does not stop him living it large in Italy. He struts through stately homes, mingling with the hoi polloi, sipping champagne while random Euro-bimbos flash him their boobs. But when Sabrina is brutally slain by her drug-smuggling mob partners Jake goes gunning for revenge. His quest leads him to Gielgud (Riccardo Parisio Perrotti), an enigmatic aristocrat who claims the same men supplied the drugs that killed his son. Once Gielgud provides a list of the Mafiosi responsible, Jake flies from Europe to Chicago, Hollywood and Las Vegas, staying one step ahead of FBI agent Parker (Christopher Connelly) as he eliminates the drug-pushers, one by one.
While Seventies action heroes were fairly diverse the Eighties were dominated by imported Aryan lunkheads, thus driving martial arts and Blaxploitation stars to seek other opportunities in the direct-to-video market. Former AFL football star Fred Williamson thrived in this arena, producing, directing and writing his own action vehicles. Which is not say they were any good. But they got the job done, sating fans till a new generation of filmmakers figured out how to utilize Fred’s talents in more mainstream fare. The Messenger stands as a typical example of the triple-threat black action icon’s output from this period in that it is amateurish, often incomprehensible yet strangely fascinating. For one thing it not only shares an alternate title in common with the later Charles Bronson action thriller Messenger of Death (1988) but crafts a storyline suspiciously similar to Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987), right down to the twist ending! Were the folks at Cannon Films secretly ripping off Fred Williamson films?
The plot, co-written by Williamson, Brian Johnson, Conchita Lee and Anthony Wisdom, is wildly episodic. Seemingly made up on the fly in order to utilize whatever locations Williamson the director had at his disposal at the time. We spend an ungodly amount of time in Italy where Jake/Fred befriends Nicole (Jasmine Maimone) a young junkie who seemingly can’t go five minutes without getting raped. By everyone from local pushers to her unfathomably subhuman uncle. Inexplicably Nicole shrugs off these multiple ordeals for a happy-go-lucky shopping montage with Fred in tow. Until a bloody turn of events renders her whole subplot pointless.
Then we are off to Chicago where Fred tracks down a pusher by the name of Sweet Louis (worth seeing just for his outrageous orange suit with matching beret decorated with green dollar signs!), seemingly set up as a vital lead towards tracing the main mafia men until Fred abruptly blows him away. Which does at least lead to a great line: "Die slow, Louis, heaven won’t miss you." Next, while special guest cops Christopher Connelly, Stack Pierce and the great Cameron Mitchell (bellowing his lines in yet another over the top police chief role) bicker on the sidelines, Fred hits Hollywood to menace special guest mafia dons Peter Brown, Val Avery and the great Joe Spinell. Once again the film switches focus onto a new supporting character: Suzanne Von Schaack as the abused wife of Brown’s mob boss, hitherto unaware of his drug-smuggling business and now fretting over her children’s safety. Yet after Fred helps her escape to Las Vegas she inexplicably transforms from concerned mom into another coke-snorting (and pushing) antagonist, curtailing a promising subplot and wasting yet more screen-time.
And so it goes. While Williamson the actor is clearly having a whale of a time, strutting his stuff like a badass, wiping out mobsters by the dozen and only minutes into the film sharing a steamy clinch with co-star Sandy Cummings set to one of the soundtrack’s plethora of sickly love ballads (Fred loves his love ballads), the bulk of The Messenger proves an endurance test for the viewer. Action scenes are ineptly edited while the pace of the plot proves choppy, meandering and repetitive. You do get to savour the sight of Cameron Mitchell squaring off with Joe Spinell (both actors seem determined to play the whole affair for comedy), but on the whole Williamson does a disservice to his own compelling hardboiled persona with this substandard, nonsensical thriller.