Monday, January 19, 2009

Death Hunt

The Action Mutant…
sells his own pocket sized Charles Bronsons for trips out into the wilderness.

Death Hunt

review by Joe Burrows

A few numerical facts about Charles Bronson & Death Hunt:
- One of seven Bronson films to include the word “death” in the title (along with the five Death Wish films & 1988’s Messenger of Death).
- First of two films Bronson starred in that was directed by Peter Hunt (1987’s Assassination being the second).
- Released almost 14 years after The Dirty Dozen, which was the first on-screen pairing of Bronson & Lee Marvin.
- Third of four Bronson films that Ed Lauter appeared in (the others being Breakheart Pass, The White Buffalo & Death Wish 3).
- Though not a numerically based fact, did you know Ed Lauter was a stand up comedian before he started acting? Somehow that reminds me of Superintendent Chalmers’ assistant from The Simpsons doing a stand up routine. Lauter did star on one episode of Manimal in 1983, which would account for at least one laugh if he did stand up today. Hey, this was a numerically based fact after all!

The Plot, as it was:
Bronson stars as Albert Johnson, a mysterious drifter that rides into the Yukon Territory in 1931. His trouble begins when he rescues a wounded dog from a fight set up by the animal’s owner Hazel (Lauter). A visit by Hazel’s posse to Johnson’s cabin results in one dead dog & one dead posse member, so Mountie Edgar Millen (Marvin) and his crew come to the cabin to bring Johnson in peaceably. When a resolution seems almost in reach, Hazel’s trigger happy thugs start a shootout & a later dynamiting of Johnson’s cabin leads to Albert’s escape. Johnson, an experienced outdoorsman that knows the lay of the land, is chased by Millen, Hazel & many others looking to bring him down for a hefty reward ($1,000…remember, its 1931). If that’s not enough, the rumor that Johnson is the so-called “Mad Trapper” (some loon that carves out people’s gold fillings for monetary gain) adds fuel to the chase…a chase Millen is determined to end himself.

Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
One of the old adages that come to mind while watching Death Hunt is “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Despite that the film is based on the true life chase of the “Mad Trapper of Rat River”, writers Michael Grais & Mark Victor (Marked for Death) reworked history so the film resembles a more traditional chase pic (history lesson this isn’t…this is). Words also don’t get in the way for our hero as I would be genuinely surprised if Bronson spoke over 75 words during the course of the film (though that does work for the character, as the real Albert Johnson was heard to have not said a word during the five week chase). On the surface, this seems like any other Bronson shoot-‘em-up style piece: it’s slam-bang, bloody escapist fare in which Bronson glares long & says little. This is all true but there are a few things that differentiate this from the usual notch on Old Stoneface. For one thing, the casting is spot on in every which way, from Bronson in the no nonsense lead to Marvin as his weathered yet cagey adversary. I enjoyed the subtleties that came about during their scenes together, such as the stares & grins during the heat of the chase that communicated (to each other & the audience) that an odd camaraderie was there, despite the fact that one wants to bring the other man to justice. Carl Weathers & Andrew Stevens also provide solid support as Millen’s deputies, as they get to somewhat flesh out their archetypes. Director Hunt, at the helm of globetrotting adventures such as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service & Shout at the Devil, makes the most of his Canadian scenery with grand cinematography from SatD camera operator James Devis. The buildup to the inevitable violent catalyst is handled very well, with the action being gritty & appropriate against the wilderness landscape. So, it comes as a bit of a disappointment when the film starts to slow up in the middle & only gets by on the two leads’ effortless screen presence. Two stars such as Bronson & Marvin can take away from some of the more glaring mistakes here, like suspect audio synching & editing (as well as Johnson jumping onto a snow bank that is located near a modern day traffic guardrail! I knew the 1930s were progressive but, shit…). Thankfully at 97 minutes, the film recovers for a stellar ending & makes for one of Bronson’s more viewable post-Death Wish vehicles.

Character/Supporting Actor Sighting!:
- Sean McCann (Run, Tommy Boy) is the news reporter that offers the reward for Johnson’s capture. McCann also co-starred with Bronson in the latter’s last film role, the 1999 TV film Family of Cops III: Under Suspicion.

Body Count/Violence: 11. The bloodbath that was Chuck Bronson’s career was only accentuated with this effort. Whilst the number of dead bodies doesn’t reflect it, the blood per corpse factor is fairly high here. The dead are mostly handled by Bronson’s sawed off shotgun, resulting in blood splattering shots to the head, neck & chest. My favorite is when the rodent faced Charlie Rat (Maurice Kowaleski) is urged to break down Johnson’s door after his cabin has been shot up. Once the door opens, Johnson greets him from the foxhole in his floor & promptly blasts the poor bastard five feet out of the doorway with said shotgun. Unfortunately, the gore is skimped on the final few deaths & that takes away from their visceral impact. There’s some fighting, bear trap snaring, plane crashes & the aforementioned dog fight in the beginning.

Sexuality/Nudity: No nudity but there are the subplots of Sundog (Weathers) offering the “Buffalo Woman” (Amy Marie George) to Constable Adams (Stevens) & Hazel eventually revealing his true nature. And yet, Angie Dickinson is in the film for about as long as it takes to prepare a ham sandwich & nothing happens. Guess it just reestablishes the fact that there’s no room for women (Buffalo, Police or otherwise) in the Great Wild.

Language/Dialogue: A few F word instances & some old salt slang, mainly courtesy of Millen (“That look on your face would turn good whiskey into sour piss.”)

How bad was it?:
Not much in the way of reviews on this one, despite the fact that it’s not all that obscure (pops up on Encore or AMC several times during the year, for example). Few called it a serviceable actioner while others unfairly lumped it in with Bronson’s other “revenge” pics. Ok, so I suppose he is getting revenge for someone here (the wounded dog) but that’s pushing it a little.

Did it make the studio’s day?:
Northshore Investments Ltd. & Golden Harvest (who would later pair up for the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie) produced Death Hunt & released it in New York on 5/22/81 through 20th Century Fox. No budget figures were made public but the film made $5 million in the U.S. during its initial run & is available on DVD through Anchor Bay.

Film: ***/*****
Entertainment value: ****/*****

Copyright 2009 The Action Mutant.

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