Death Hunt (1981)

Director: Peter Hunt
Starring: Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Carl Weathers, Andrew Stevens, Angie Dickinson, Ed Lauter
Music: Jerrold Immel
Editors: Allan Jacobs & John F. Burnett
Director of Photography: James Devis
Writers: Michael Crais, Robert Victor
Producers: Albert S. Ruddy, Raymond Chow

Death Hunt is allegedly based on a true story. The film opens in Yukon Territory in November 1931, and man, it looks imposing and icy cold – it looks dangerous! But one man who seems to be in his element in this hostile environment is Albert Johnson (Charles Bronson). We meet him as he is riding down from the mountains on his way home. As he passes through a settlement a vicious dog fight is taking place with a crowd of hardened mountain men circled round. The fight is in its final stages, and one of the dogs is owned by this fella called Hazel (Ed Lauter), and the beast is copping a hiding. It is covered in blood and can barely defend itself. The fight should be called off, but Hazel is too proud to give up – even if it costs the dog his life. Finally the fight is stopped. Hazel is angered and embarrassed, and pulls a knife, preparing to take out his frustrations on the dog. That’s when Johnson wades in. He knocks Hazel to the ground and picks up the wounded animal. Hazel is not happy that a stranger has intervened. Once again he has lost face with his peers. Johnson throws one hundred dollars at Hazel for the half dead dog. Still angered and petulant, Hazel demands more money. Johnson throws another bill at him, and then rides off with the dog on a stretcher.

Of course, Hazel doesn’t leave it there. First he approaches the local Mountie, Edgar Millen (Lee Marvin), demanding justice, claiming that Johnson forced him to give up the dog, so it was theft. Millen knows the type of guy Hazel is, and ignores the complaint. So Hazel takes matters into his own hands. With a posse of men, he rides out to Johnson’s lodge intent to kill him.

One of Hazel’s posse shoots the dog, and in anger, Johnson shoots the shooter down. Now Hazel runs back to Millen demanding action, as Johnson is no longer just a thief, but a murderer. Millen understands that the killing may have been self-defense, or Johnson was simply pushed to it – but the law is the law, and Millen sets off to reluctantly do his duty.

Millen, and a posse (mostly Hazel’s men) go to Johnson’s lodge. Millen tries to bring Johnson peacefully, but Johnson refuses. He dosen’t believe he has done anything wrong. When one of Hazel’s dupes opens fire during the negotiation, it becomes one big gun fight. With the numbers stacked against Johnson, it would appear he doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.

One of the more interesting aspects of Death Hunt is the changing relationship between the two main antagonists. At the beginning of the film, Johnson is the good guy who is being treated wrong. However, when he refuses to go with Millen and have the matter sorted out – and inadvertently turns the investigation into a seige – he becomes the bad guy. As for Millen, he too starts out as the good guy but as he allows himself to be coerced into hunting down Johnson, even though he knows he is innocent, he becomes a bad guy. But even though they have both become bad in their way, you can still sympathise with their characters, because it is the people around them that have turned them bad. In their natural state, for want of a better expression, both of them are good men.

Please correct me if I am wrong, but is Edgar Millen Lee Marvin’s last great film role? Don’t you dare say Delta Force! Of course, he did work after this, but his age was really catching up with him and he didn’t seem to choose (or was offered) roles that weren’t age-appropriate. He was still playing the same hard living character as he had through the 60s and 70s as if time had stood still. Unfortunately it hadn’t, and some of his later roles are just hard to watch, such as The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission.

Death Hunt is one of my childhood favourites. I watched it many times on video, and still enjoy watching repeat viewings now. It is interesting to compare it to the film First Blood with which this film shares many common themes, and shares more than one or two similar scenes.

As a final bit of trivia, Death Hunt was directed by Peter Hunt, who directed the Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – and who would go on to direct Bronson again in the Secret Service thriller, Assassination.

If you have never seen Death Hunt, it is well worth a look.

Death Hunt (1981)

OHMSS: Astor Theatre (w/ George Lazenby)

George Lazenby: Astor Theatre, Melbourne Australia (13th October 2012)

On Saturday night, the Astor Theatre, in Melbourne had a rare screening of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the sixth James Bond film. As it is one of the few Bond movies that I had never seen on the big screen (I still haven’t seen Diamonds Are Forever), I had to go along. The sealer was that George Lazenby, himself was going to be introducing the film, followed by a Q & A.

The Astor is (and has always been) an amazing venue. It’s a old, art deco single screen movie palace. I remember when I first moved to Melbourne (all those years ago – before movies were available on sell-through), the Astor was the only place you could see many cult and classic films. The venue was crowded – I am guessing around 500 people (maybe more) – without being packed.

George was generous with his time, talking for over an hour, about everything from Bond, to his time working in Hong Kong, and much more – sharing many anecdotes about the mischief he got up to. My one complaint about the evening, and it must be said that George handled himself very professionally, is that somebody decided to bring their terrible two year old kid along. The kid kept jumping up and down on the seat and yelling out. George joked about it, but on a couple of occasions, his train of thought was interrupted.

At one point, as George was interrupted, the crowd actually turned on the family, yelling at them to take the kid outside. But the parents didn’t, steadfastly refusing to leave the auditorium. The kid kept interrupting. As a parent, I love my son more than anything, and yes, I would love for him to experience any ‘once in a lifetime’ event, but really the child was too young to appreciate where he was or who George was. Ultimately it was a rather selfish act on their behalf, and only George’s professionalism stopped it from ruining the night for the five hundred odd patrons who attended the event.

For a person of my age, it’s funny looking back at On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I am too young to have seen it on it’s original release at the movies, and by the time I saw it on television many years later, I was very confused by the negative reaction by the adults around me. I watched the film and wondered what all the fuss was about. Sure, George Lazenby was no Roger Moore – the incumbent Bond at the time – but the film was still highly entertaining. In fact, it was better than that – it was bloody good with some amazing scenes – but still the film seemed to have this stigma attached to it – especially for the older generation who grew up with Sean Connery as their James Bond. As an example of this, recently I watched a repeat of Parkinson, the UK talk show hosted by – who else – Michael Parkinson, and one of his guests was comedian Eddie Izzard. During their conversation, the topic of ‘Bond’ came up and Izzard was asked his favorite film. He said On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Parkinson, who is quite a bit older, was visibly shocked at Izzard’s response and screwed up his nose. It seems that as time has gone by, the younger generation who grew up with a multitude of different Bonds are a lot more willing to embrace On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and see it as simply a part in the Bond series, rather than George Lazenby’s failed attempt to replace Sean Connery in the hearts and minds on Bond fans all around the world.

One of the big differences between On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and some of the preceding Bond films is that it is almost gadget free. Goldfinger had a tricked up Aston Martin, Thunderball had every underwater device imaginable, and You Only Live Twice had an aggressive gyrocopter called ‘Little Nellie’, but this film has ‘radioactive lint’. Q’s grand moment comes early in the film where he presents his new tracking device for ‘double O’ agents, which lines the agent’s pockets. I am sure gadget lovers were disappointed. It’s hardly the kind of exciting espionage gadget we are used to from the highly inventive Quartermaster. Later in the film, Bond uses an elaborate safe cracking and photocopying device. As I mentioned earlier, the first version of this film that I saw was on television, and the version shown happened to be an extended version. Apparently, the original theatrical version didn’t have the safe cracking sequence – so it could be argued that ‘lint’ is all that this film has to offer. These days though, on video, DVD and Blu-ray the film is the extended version, so we get the extra gadget. But however you look at the film, it is still very light on for gadgets.

Among On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s many strengths is the score by John Barry. It is undoubtedly his best score (although Thunderball is pretty hard to beat), and provides pounding excitement for the action scenes and the passion for the romantic scenes. The title tune is unusual as it is an instrumental, but this is countered by the song, ‘We Have All The Time In The World’, performed by Louis Armstrong at a pivotal point in the film.

A frequent supposition among Bond fans is, if On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had Sean Connery it, it would have been one of the greatest films of all time. I like the basis of the argument – that being that Connery was the best Bond, and that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service contained the best Bond story. Combined, they would have been a sure fire winner. But in reality, had Connery made himself available to do On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I doubt we would have got the film that we did. Connery had a very set style, which involved quite a bit of humour and his films featured quite a few gadgets. With Connery in the lead, undoubtedly the formula would have continued and we would have ended up with a very different Bond film, and in my mind at least, I do not feel it would have been as strong.

In all in all, it was an enjoyable evening, and it was great to finally see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on the big screen after all these years.

OHMSS: Astor Theatre (w/ George Lazenby)

Assassination (1987)

AssassinationCountry: United States
Director: Peter Hunt
Starring: Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Jan Gan Boyd, Stephen Elliot, Randy Brooks, Michael Ansara, William Prince
Music: Robert D. Ragland

In the late 1980’s, into the early 1990’s, two of the biggest film producers and distributors were Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, and their company was Cannon Films. Cannon were routinely low budget exploitation affairs, generally with actors past their prime but still with an audience. Most films featured these actors doing particularly nasty and violent things. Amongst their output were several Chuck Norris films Delta Force 1 & 2, Missing In Action 1, 2 & 3, Invasion U.S.A.; and the Charles Bronson vehicles Death Wish 4 & 5, The Evil That Men Do, Murphy’s Law and The Messenger Of Death. Those familiar with any of those titles will know what I mean.

Assassination is one of Cannon’s better productions. This is probably due to the assured direction of Peter Hunt, who had directed On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and had previously worked with Bronson on the klondike manhunt thriller Death Hunt. Having said that it is one of the better Cannon productions doesn’t mean it is a great film though. At best, (and rather forgivingly) it can be described as half decent entertainment.

The film opens on inauguration day. A new U.S. President is about to be sworn in. Secret Service Agent Jay Killian (Charles Bronson) returns to duty after six weeks off on sick leave. He wants to be assigned to protect the President, but luck isn’t on his side. He is assigned to protect The First Lady, Lara Royce Craig (Jill Ireland – Bronson’s wife at the time). The Secret Service have an irritating habit of referring to her as ‘One Mama’. Doesn’t it make you cringe, just reading it?

As Mrs. Craig prepares for the motorcade to the inauguration, Killian outlines the protection mechanism’s the Secret Service have in place for her. “I won’t be coerced by your chauvinistic rules,” she says. And then she gets into an open top car, which she chose for the journey. Killian warns against it. He says they haven’t used open top vehicles since the Kennedy assassination in 1963. In a hostile fashion she rebukes his advice.

As the motorcade winds it’s way through the streets, Mrs. Craig chooses to sit up high on the back seat, rather down in the car. Killian warns her that it is a security risk. Again she ignores him. A policeman on a motorcycle weaves through the security cordon and approaches the car. An explosive charge emanates from his foot peddle and he looses control. The bike crashes and then goes up in a ball of flames. The officer, rather suspiciously disappears into the crowd. In the First Lady’s car, Killian has pulled Mrs. Craig down and into the car, just in the nick of time. Unfortunately her eye has connected with his knee. She doesn’t realise the gravity of the situation and believes Killian is simply being over zealous. She kicks him out of the car. He now has to run along side, which for a man of Bronson’s age seems quite a chore (at the time of this film Bronson was in his mid sixties). The Presidential swearing in ceremony takes place without further incident.

In the aftermath of the motorcade, Killian is given a stripping down. But he believes the motorcycle incident was not just an accident, but a premeditated attack on the First Lady. And from the quick glimpse he got of the suspect, he thinks that American terrorist, Reno Bracken (Erik Stern) was posing as the police officer.

Next it is off to a press conference for the First Lady. She acquits her self well in her first official duty, but a subversive reporter Derek Finny (Robert Axelrod) asks a few too many personal questions about the President and First Ladies sex life (apparently it is non-existent). Killian and another Secret Service Agent, Tyler Loudermilk (Randy Brooks), who is younger and more physical than Killian, scare off the nosey reporter.

Causing more trouble, Mrs. Craig leaves the Whitehouse without permission and a security escort. The Secret Service are in a flap. Luckily she is stopped at the airport and Killian and agent Charlotte (Charlie) Chong (played by Jan Gan Boyd) are sent to accompany her on the journey. They take a private plane to California.

In California, Mrs. Craig wants to go sailing on Daddy’s yacht, but it is currently in dry dock. She doesn’t care. She bullies the captain into getting it ready. Working on the boat are some shady characters, including Pritchard Young, the number two man for Reno Bracken. He attaches some plastic explosive to the hull.

The yacht is almost ready to go. Mrs. Craig, Killian and Chong wait in the boathouse as the yacht sails past to be refuelled. Naturally it explodes and all the windows in the boathouse shatter. But the First Lady is safe. Killian orders her back to Washington. She is reluctant. She believes it is another accident.

Back in Washington, Killian and Chong are off duty. Chong convinces Killian to come back home with her. The age difference here is staggering – I would guess forty years. Anyway, Killian agrees. But folks, this is a Charles Bronson movie. We all know what happens to minor characters he gets attached to. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

While Killian and Chong are enjoying their evening, Agent Loudermilk is working. Analysis on the exploded yacht reveals that C4 explosive was used in the assault. It appears that Killian isn’t paranoid after all. And it seems the conspiracy goes even deeper than expected. Loudermilk has found a listening device in his telephone.

Despite the danger she is in, Mrs. Craig refuses to allow Killian to protect her. The man sent to do her dirty work is Presidential Advisor and Chief of Staff, Senator Bunsen (Michael Ansara). Killian tells Bunsen that he thinks someone is trying to assassinate Mrs. Craig. Bunsen believes him and agrees to talk to the President about her security. But Bunsen still has to suspend Killian from duty.

Killian’s suspension doesn’t last long. He is called into work the next day. There has been an incident overnight. To protect the Whitehouse, on top of the old Executive Building is an installation with rockets designed to intercept (shoot down) intruders into the airspace. It seems that two sentries at the installation, were disabled with tazers and the rockets stolen. Reno Bracken is the chief suspect. To make matters worse the First Lady intends to give a speech to an assembly of university students. Her journey to Lexington, Virginia includes a section of 200 miles across open country. At any point she could be targeted. Killian contrives a scheme where Mrs. Craig makes the start of the journey by chopper. Then it discreetly sets down in a paddock, where she is transferred into a car. She is not happy about the interruption to her schedule. And even less amused to see Killian when she alights from the chopper.

The chopper continues it’s journey. As it passes over a barn, Reno Bracken armed with a rocket launcher takes aim and fires. The rocket misses. Killian is ready for the attack and his team storm the barnyard on dirt bikes. More rockets are fired and the barn is blown to smithereens, but Bracken still gets away.

Back in Washington, Killian approaches Bunsen once more. But this time Bunsen is not so receptive. He insists that Killian is actually the target of the terrorists and not Mrs. Craig. Bunsen is either stupid or corrupt – as he is played by Michael Ansara, an actor who has made a career out of playing villains, it is not hard to work out which.

Remember Finney, the nosey reporter that asked the personal question about the Presidential sex life? Well he turns up dead, with his body rigged to a large amount of explosive. It appears that someone didn’t like what he had to say.
Killian and Chong are now assigned to watch the First Lady’s sister, Polly. They follow her to the National Museum of Natural History, where her sister is donating her inaugural ball gown. Agent Chong goes inside and Killian stays in the car. Polly leaves early and gets into a car, but there is something different about her hair. Killian follows. She is also followed in a police van by the terrorist Pritchard Young.

Obviously the difference in hair is because Polly is now the First Lady in disguise. She is scared and on the run. And furthering the contrivance, she deliberately had Killian assigned to protect her sister, because she knew he’d be following and that’s what she wanted. In a dramatic turn around, it seems that she now trusts Killian and wants him to protect her.

The two of them continue their journey together. Their first stop at night is a hotel where they pose as man and wife (not very seemly for the First Lady?) It is not long before Young turns up at the hotel, and in his guise as a police officer he finds their room. Young enters the room with a blazing machine gun. Killian is ready and waiting and kills Young.

The following day they ditch the car, and travel on a bus to Kokomo, Indiana. Next they buy dirt bikes and keep travelling. Killian’s reasoning is that the terrorists wouldn’t be looking for them on motorbikes. At the next hotel, Mrs. Craig explains that her marriage to the President is a marriage of convenience. It was simply to get him into power. It was agreed that once he was in the Whitehouse, she could either go along for the ride or get a discreet divorce. Killian reasons that is why they are trying to kill her. If she gets a divorce the President would not get re-elected. But as a widower, he would get a sympathy vote and be a shoe-in at the next election.

Next day, they are out of town, back on the motorcycles, when a utility vehicle starts chasing them. The driver is brandishing a machine gun. Killian and Mrs. Craig take the bikes off road and follow a railroad track. The utility follows behind, along the railroad tracks. No prizes for guessing that a train is coming in the opposite direction. The utility is forced off the tracks and into a riverbed, where it explodes in a colourful ball of flame (which we see repeated from multiple angles).

At this point, Killian asks the question that all viewers have ticking in their heads, “How could they have possibly found us?” No answer. The story moves on. They ditch the bikes and board a train. Later the train is stopped. Bracken and another minion land in a helicopter and search the train. Killian hides himself and Mrs, Craig outside, between carriages, up on the couplings. This is successful and Bracken moves on.

Again Killian asks, “How did they know you were on the train?” The First Lady says she has been phoning her husband because she trusts him.

Next they hitch-hike. They are picked up by Indian Joe, a used car salesman. Back at his lot he sells them a dune buggy. The couple make their way to Mrs. Craig’s father’s home on Lake Tahoe. Mr H.H. Royce (William Prince) is happy to greet them. Meanwhile, Killian has arranged for agents Chong and Loudermilk to join them there.

On the lake, behind the cover of an old stern wheeler, Bracken approaches on jet-ski, with one hand steering an unmanned boat laden with plastic explosive. Once he is close enough, he releases the boat and it powers towards the Royce lakehouse. Killian’s team scramble and start firing. A shot takes out the outboard motor on the speedboat and the explosive is dead on the water. Killian leaps into another speedboat and takes off after Bracken. Bracken slides his jetski ashore, and Killian follows, riding his boat up onto the bank. Amongst the trees a gun battle is played out, until Killian runs out of bullets and appears to be shot. He is lying on the ground, when Bracken approaches with gun poised ready to fire.

And in the tradition of all good cliff hangers I will leave the synopsis there. All the threads come together satisfactorily at the end, but if you care how, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

Bronson is often accused of being lazy in this film, but I think he is rather relaxed. He even breaks into a smile a few times and is probably very comfortable working with his wife. (She had co-starred in quite a few of Bronson’s films in the seventies, but it had been quite a while since the two of them had appeared together). So of the other performances aren’t quite as good, in particular Jan Gan Boyd, whose performance is sub par.

As I mentioned at the start, that Cannon films tend to be violent affairs and often they leave a bad taste after viewing, but Assassination isn’t as gruesome as many of their productions. And here is a spoiler, but without giving the ending away, I am going back to what I said about Charlotte Chong earlier. Remember I mentioned that she was going to ‘buy it’ because she fell in love with Bronson’s character. I am pleased to say, I am wrong. She lives. This is the strongest example I can give that this isn’t like many other of Bronson’s late cycle films. It doesn’t leer at violence and death – and thankfully the film-makers seem to know the difference between action and violence.

By no means is this a classic – but I somehow feel that it is better than it should be.

Assassination (1987)