ON DUAL FORMAT: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 86 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Two professional assassins are sent to kidnap a 9-year-old boy named Travis Knight, who is under the United States Federal Witness Protection Program after witnessing a mob killing in Texas. Cohen is the older, jaded assassin with a little bit of humanity still in him. Tate is the younger of the two, hot headed and a psychopathic killer. They kill the boy’s parents and the agent who protected them with the help of another agent who lets them get in the house and then runs away. They capture Travis and drive him away to see their boss, in Houston, but Travis begins to notice a rising antagonism between his kidnappers….
Here’s a great little movie that you may not have heard of but which I thoroughly recommend. I had known of it myself prior to watching Arrow’s Blu-ray of the film, but only because I always used to pick it up in my local video shop when I was young [too young to legally watch it, as it was an ‘18’ certificate then, not that one particular guy who often served me cared!], but every time put the video back because my eyes alighted on something of even more interest which I usually ended up hiring out. Despite over half of it taking place inside a car, the film, much like Mario Bava’s superb Rabid Dogs, is most definitely not boring and the simmering, claustrophobic tension certainly kept me riveted me to my TV screen. It also has a really tough, almost uncompromising feel to it, and at times I reckon that it may upset viewers who don’t like seeing young kids treated badly on screen [it’s possible that this may have also hampered the distribution of a film which had one of the poorest opening weekends of a semi-major release to that date] though the film stops short of being needlessly cruel. The plotting gets a little silly towards the end, and I suppose if you think about it the premise isn’t too believable, but overall this modest combination of kidnap thriller and road movie packs quite a punch and also gains a lot from keeping its running time low and being content to only vaguely sketch background.
When I can find little information about a certain film and/or the major source of information turns out to be an audio commentary, I tend to skip my background paragraph now as there would then be little point in buyers of the Blu-ray/DVD listening to the commentary! So it’s onto the review proper and the first thing worth mentioning is Bill Conti’s music score which is excellent throughout, his opening title music being very astute, with long sinister notes over which a childlike piano motif [which will become Travis’s theme] is played, until the music suddenly goes all frantic and loud. The lengthy beginning sequence is a truly masterful exercise in gradual tension and nasty shock, right from the very first shot of the exterior of the farmhouse where young Travis and his parents are being guarded, where we see one agent standing in the distance beside the house and the other one suddenly walks into the forefront of the screen from the right hand side. The father notices one of the agents sweating and looking at his watch and asks him what’s wrong with it, to which he replies: “Not running right, that’s all” which is obviously a lie. Father goes to ring his attorney but the line’s dead, the suspicious agent drives off, the dog senses trouble, POV shots of someone walking towards the house; it all builds superbly, very much in the manner of the opening to The Searchers, to the sudden appearance of Cohen who shoots the father, his body sent bloodily crashing through a window, and then Tate killing the other agent and then the mother. The latter deed is not something we see but the whole sequence is still pretty grim despite a major – and I mean – major gaffe which I can’t believe wasn’t spotted, and which I won’t mention but I doubt you’ll miss it]. The boy is shoved into the back of a car and Cohen and Tate set off to take him to Houston. Immediately we get a sense of the characters of both Cohen and Tate, and their differing approaches to their job, when Cohen complains that Tate used six cartridges on the woman instead of the standard two, and then says how he likes working alone and dislikes being lumbered with a partner.
Travis is initially asleep, but soon wakes up and his first sighting of the eyes of his kidnappers seen through the front mirror is quite creepy. His tears turn to a mixture of terror as Tate keeps threatening to kill him and has to constantly be restrained by Cohen from doing him some harm [though the boy still gets a few elbows in the face], and thinking [little Harley Cross, who, going by his performance in this particular film should have made it big, is really good at suggesting Travis thinking about what to do]. He first tries to escape, which leads to two genuinely hair-raising sequences; one of Travis making his way across a busy highway with trucks constantly coming at him [the shots chosen and the editing really make it look like the little guy is in great danger], and Travis in a car where the driver has been shot. Travis ends up back with Cohen and Tate, but then he thinks of a more subtle way to try to turn the tables on his kidnappers, using each one’s distrust of the other. The final act doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of the rest of the film by becoming a bit daft [these villains really do seem un-killable], but it’s still quite gripping stuff and at times manipulates the viewer quite well. Cohen seems to be by far the most ‘likeable’ of the two crooks, and he gets a nice little moment [which was thought up on the spot by Red to get Scheider to do the film] which hints at some human feelings where he posts some money and a letter to a ‘Pamela Cohen’ [Wife? Mother? Daughter? It doesn’t really matter], but he’s still a cold professional hitman, while Tate may be an out of control psychopath always on the verge of using his knuckleduster or his gun [usually on Travis] and who has to constantly be restrained by his partner – not to mention enjoying running over animals on the road – but he gets a moment where he bursts into tears.
Red’s script is so lean that it doesn’t even tell us if one character who is on the verge of death throughout is alive by the end of the film, but it does give us a few bits of humour, most notable when Tate pointing a gun at a baby in the car in front of him and making gunshot sounds makes the child laugh. His budget didn’t allow for big action scenes, and it seems like a whole sequence is missing near the end because bloodstains on the front window of the car suddenly appear with no explanation as to how they got there, but there’s plenty of bloody moments even though after you’ve watched the film it feels like you’ve seen a far more brutal film work than you actually have [A good sign of its effectiveness I suppose], and this is one film that proves character interaction can be as exciting as a load of shootouts if the characters and the situations are strong enough. And Red and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper really use the mostly nocturnal setting to their advantage with lots of light reflection, especially red, used to vivid effect. Cohen and Tate is a good example of how to make a movie set largely at night visually interesting without going into overt stylisation which could divert attention from the grittiness of the story and the general approach taken with it. In fact Red, probably still best known for writing films like The Hitcher and Near Dark, handles the not-exactly-easy material so well that it’s surprising that his directorial career never really took off, though Body Parts is good grisly fun and Bad Moon to my mind a rather underrated werewolf movie.
Roy Scheider and Adam Baldwin are terrific together [though there seem to be moments where Baldwin is swearing and his dialogue has been overdubbed] and in fact I would have been content to just watch these two – Scheider as the aging assassin weary of his lot and scared of the mob’s retirement plan but, despite wanting to “get the job done,” still with a thread of decency hanging over his doomed soul, and Baldwin as the moronic brute with no scruples, intellect or even taste – in a car for an hour and a half and not have the boy at all, despite Harley Cross’ very astute performance. In any case, I had a feeling that Cohen and Tate would be decent, but instead I got a film which is just short of being a neglected classic and which doesn’t really feel dated in any way too despite in some ways seeming closer to a 70’s movie than an ‘80’s one. I think that fans of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers should especially get much enjoyment out of it.
Arrow’s Blu-ray of Cohen and Tate has a few extremely grainy shots near the beginning of the film [I like grain, but not dollops of it] and a few moments of crush during some scenes inside the car where things virtually disappear into the dark, but this is a fairly low budget movie from 1988 and otherwise it’s another fine presentation, colours being especially strong. The special features are ported over from Shout Factory’s Region ‘A’ release. Red’s commentary has a lot of gaps in it, but overall is a very good listen with the writer/director covering most of what you’d want to hear about, from casting to script changes to locations to alterations due to censorship [no mention of the swearing overdubs though]. I didn’t notice that many of the scenes in the car used back projection because I was so transfixed by the drama taking place. Red interestingly says how he’s “disgusted” by the way Elmore Leonard supposedly ripped him off for his novel Kill Shot. The retrospective featurette, comprised of interviews with Red, Kemper, editor Edward Abroms, and actors Kenneth McCabe, Frank Bates and Harley Cross, covers a lot of the same ground as the commentary but at least we hear some different perspectives and Abroms actually criticises two of the performances a little bit. For some reason though this featurette seems to keep switching format and the film clips looks ‘squashed’. Not a major problem though. And then we get the uncut versions of the opening and closing shootouts which had to be toned down to avoid an ‘X’ rating. They are considerably bloodier. I’m guessing that the reason that they haven’t been put back into the film is because they only exist as poor quality footage. For some reason some other minor cut moments on the Shout Factory disc aren’t on the Arrow. Generally though this is another fine package of a virtually forgotten crime movie which certainly shouldn’t have been so forgotten!
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
*Original stereo audio (uncompressed on the Blu-ray)
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Audio commentary by writer/director Eric Red
*A Look Back at Cohen & Tate, a retrospective documentary featuring Eric Red, cinematographer Victor J. Kemper, editor Edward Abroms, and co-stars Kenneth McCabe and Harley Cross
*Eric Red’s original storyboards for the opening farmhouse shoot-out
*Original, uncut versions of the farmhouse and oilfield shoot-outs
*Original theatrical trailer
*Extensive stills gallery
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
*First pressing only: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Kim Newman