[7 February 2011]
Double features are a great thing, especially when the films complement one another. Sadly, you don’t get the chance to see them at the drive-in very often anymore, but Shout! Factory has released a nice pairing of action films on DVD, and there is certainly something to be said for watching movies back to back on your own couch in the comfort of your own living room.
In 1931, the Yukon Territory was a rugged, inhospitable land that bred rugged, inhospitable men. This is the setting for Peter Hunt’s 1981 action thriller Death Hunt, and who better to star as grizzled mountain men than those icons of cinematic gruffness Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin, together again for the first time since The Dirty Dozen?
Albert Johnson (Bronson) is a solitary trapper, who probably doesn’t say 30 words in the entire movie. He has a shadowy past, and all he really wants it to be left alone to trap in peace and hang out in the log cabin that he built with his own two hands. When Johnson breaks up a vicious dog fight, he sets off a violent chain of events, and kills a man in self-defense.
Sergeant Edgar Millen (Marvin) of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is a hard man, hardened further by his surroundings, the aptly named town of Rat River, and drowns himself nightly in rotgut. He says things like, “Never had much luck praying.” Even though Millen knows that if the situation were reversed, he would have done the same thing as Johnson, he is the law, and thus compelled to round up a posse to go after Johnson, which turns out to be a much greater undertaking than anyone thought.
Death Hunt works best when it’s Johnson versus Millen. Luckily, that is where the bulk of the film is spent, in the chess-like duel between two men, who are not only more similar than either man knows, but who also bear a begrudging respect for each other. You get to see two of the greatest movie tough guys of all time go head to head in the frozen wilderness, and that is every bit as good as it sounds. This is what both actors do best, play damaged, outsider characters, compelled to act, and who neither can, nor will back down.
Problems arise in Death Hunt when the focus shifts away from the struggle between Johnson and Millen. At some point the film becomes an allegory for the inevitable and destructive encroachment of the modern world into even what had been the most isolated corners of the world. Johnson and Millen are men of the past, confronted, brutally, violently, by the future. Their world is changing, and there is no place left to run.
Also, in Death Hunt you get to watch Carl Weathers, still riding his post-Rocky career high, explain his theories of competitive whisky drinking. Make no mistake about it, Death Hunt is a manly movie for men. There is only one real female role, played by Angie Dickinson, and she is only present to show that Millen has a sensitive side and how bound by duty he is. Otherwise, if he wasn’t obligated to, why would he get out of a warm bed with a pretty woman that he cares about to go traipsing around the woods after Charles Bronson?
Butch & Sundance: The Early Days
Butch & Sundance: The Early Days is a decent enough companion piece to Death Hunt. You can see the logic in the coupling, it is still an action piece, but the humor provides a counterbalance to the grim outlook, not to mention the less than hopeful conclusion, of the Bronson/Marvin team up.
As you probably guessed, Butch & Sundance is a 1979 prequel to George Roy Hill’s western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with Tom Berenger and William Katt (The Greatest American Hero) in the roles made famous by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, respectively, in 1969.
Cassidy is a smooth talking planner, and when he encounters the young, brash Sundance, who is attempting to rob a casino on his own, a feat Sundance nearly pulls off thanks to his prowess with a pistol, Cassidy decides that he has found someone to partner up with. The remainder of the story follows the duo through the trials and tribulations that brought them closer together, taking you through their first inept robberies, tense showdowns, and the train robbery that would ultimately made them famous outlaws.
Butch & Sundance is an enjoyable enough movie, though ultimately a bit vapid. Early on director Richard Lester (Superman II) wastes too much time trying to be cute, like an overly long scene of Butch and Sundance learning to ski from some helpful Scandinavians, but as the end nears the pace picks up. This is when the film most captures the spirit of the original, and where Berenger and Katt seem to have finally found something similar to the chemistry of Newman and Redford. Early Days is western-lite. Everything is a game to them, even bank heists and shootouts. They’re young and cocksure, so even the heaviness of killing a man in a duel isn’t a feeling that sticks around for much longer than it takes the pair to ride hurriedly out of town.
Shout Factory has put together a well-balanced double feature of action adventure films. Death Hunt is a grim chase story that pits two big screen legends against one another, and Butch & Sundance: The Early Days is a fun, if ultimately empty, take on the western, that introduces two characters that have become beloved. The DVD doesn’t come with much beyond the original trailers for each film, but in this case, the films will hopefully be enough to keep you entertained.