This lean and effective thriller has been skipping along just below my radar for YEARS now. It’s largely due to my knowledge of the two leads, Roy Scheider (‘Jaws’ ) and Adam Baldwin (‘Firefly’), and their individual filmographies, that I know of its existence. In whatever Histories I’ve delved into, regarding these two fine Gentlemen of Cinema, THIS title always popped up. For a long chunk of time, I gave it little to no regard, until….I found out who wrote and directed it. Eric Red. This man is responsible for the scripts for two of my All Time Favorite films: ‘The Hitcher’ (1986); a supremely tension-laden and atmospheric serial killer film that director Robert Harmon shot in a way that was confidently ahead-of-its-time (That I can’t wait to see on Blu Ray…if ‘they’ EVER get around to restoring and rereleasing it), and ‘Near Dark’ (1987); a gritty and violent ‘western’ of a vampire movie, featuring half the cast of my favorite film EVER, ‘Aliens’, and was expertly shot and staged by director Kathryn Bigelow. Bigelow and Red also reteamed a couple years later to deliver the riveting ‘serial killer vs cop’ thriller ‘Blue Steel’ (1989). There’s something about Red’s stripped down, no-nonsense stories of tension and murder, often taking place in the states like Oklahoma and Texas, that worked for me. Those previous examples had been brought to cinematic ‘life’ under the direction of other, relatively-experienced people; people who were clearly able to inject a sense of style into the work. One day I discovered that this little ‘Cohen and Tate’ movie that I’d kept shrugging off was, in fact, Eric Red’s first foray into Film Direction.
‘Cohen and Tate’ opens in some desolate stretch of land, in some dusty place like Oklahoma, where we come upon a tiny farmhouse. Inside this farmhouse is a cautious man of some importance (as he’s also being guarded by a pair of FBI agents), and his nervous wife and 9 year old son ‘Travis’ (Harley Cross). It doesn’t take long for one of the Feds to ‘rabbit’ with the family station wagon, and a pair of very mismatched killers to appear on the scene. These assassins are ‘Mr. Cohen’ (Roy Scheider); a seasoned professional with a hearing aid, and ‘Mr.Tate’ (Adam Baldwin); a gum-smacking, leather jacket-wearing brute with a dim bulb for a brain and an serious sadist streak…who also fetishizes his Franchi SPAS 12 shotgun in a creepy way. In short order, the remaining agent is shotgun-blasted out a window and Dad takes a bullet in the chest. After a painfully drawn-out pause in the action, Mom is coldly blown away in the kitchen. ‘Travis’, having been saved from the initial burst of carnage by his runaway dog, returns to the house to find the slaughter…and walks right into ‘Cohen’s waiting hands. It seems that The Mob, who ‘Travis’ Dad fucked over somehow, have paired these two psychos together to ‘off’ the parents and, for some mysterious reason, bring the kid back to Mob Headquarters somewhere in Houston, Texas. ‘Cohen’ has every intention of seeing this job through, so they kidnap ‘Travis’ and hit the road. ‘Travis’, not being quite the dumb little shit he seemed like in the film’s beginning, takes note of the antagonistic chemistry between the two polar-opposite killers-for-hire, and begins doing what he can to turn them on each other.
For a first time director, this script was a good one to go with. I think Red, as both Writer and Director, maybe knew his own limitations behind the camera and kept the script tight and simple. It largely takes place in one location (a car) and amounted to a violent ‘road movie’ in the end…a story format that has long been the ‘go to’ for low-budget film-making. The simple effectiveness depended on the conflicting personalities of calculating ‘Cohen’ and trigger-happy ‘Tate’. Roy Scheider is a joy to watch in virtually every film I’ve seen him in, and his performance as the brutal-when-he-needs-to-be older killer was no different. Adam Baldwin, who I will ALWAYS associate with either his brutish machine gunner ‘Animal Mother’ in ‘Full Metal Jacket’ or as the dim-witted but…hey, wait a minute…in a weird way, ‘Tate’ could EASILY be some genetic relation to Baldwin’s now iconic turn as ‘Jayne Cobb’ in ‘Firefly’! Only he’s far more ‘loose-cannon’ here, giving in to rage-fueled temper tantrums or, at one point, crying in frustration as ‘Travis’ mocks him to his face (“Pussy!”), only to be protected from ‘Tate’s homicidal wrath by ‘Cohen’, who intends to complete the task with the kid intact. Baldwin is certainly effective here, but I could also see that he still needed more acting experience and sometimes had a tendency to go almost cartoonishly over-the-top.
Speaking of ‘effective’, I wasn’t expecting them, but there are a couple of surprisingly engaging scenes of suspense, such as one where they slowly force their way through a police roadblock holding 6 highway cops hostage or even the buildup to the massacre at the beginning. I applaud your efforts, Mr. Red…you kept it simple but you also pulled me in…nicely done.
Something I couldn’t help but to notice, was that in the 3 films he was largely responsible for in the late 1980’s, there was an unmistakable obsession with the ‘Highways and Bi-ways of America’. Many shots in ‘The Hitcher’, ‘Near Dark’ and this, give us cinematic snippets of Desolate Industry: shots of crowded semi-trailer weigh stations, late-night desert gas stations, mile upon miles of soulless factories and warehouses, traffic on long stretches of dusty road, car lights at night, neon and smoke, etc. Either Eric Red had originally written specific instructions into the two prior movies to show these things to establish the dreary settings, or he’d taken careful note of what directors Harmon and Bigelow had done and realized that THAT aesthetic was now ‘part n parcel’ with his literary ‘flavor’ and injected it, based on their examples, into his first movie.
That being said, this is still not a perfect film. Far from it. First off, it certainly does feel dated, which does have to be expected, but it’s not just confined to WHAT we see on screen. Many of his edits had a distinctly 70’s vibe to them; long cross-fades, abrupt scene changes, too-fast fade-outs and the heavy grain in the film (this was a DVD copy, so that may be the culprit too) gave it a ‘grindhouse’ feel. Looking back now, that’s easily a genre that this flick could be filed under. It has all the hallmarks: dangerous, exaggerated characters, over-the-top violence, a disregard for Political Correctness, and a simple plot. Couple that with the B-grade production (handled well, I will admit) and this flick would be right at home in a mid-80’s Drive-In Triple Feature. Oh, and sometimes the kid’s persistent whining and shrill voice were annoying as hell.
All in all, ‘Cohen and Tate’ was an entertaining ‘curiosity’ of a thriller that is nothing revolutionary in the grand scheme of things, but is certainly an admirable ‘first effort’ for a fresh-outta-the-gate movie director. There are some solid scenes of suspense, some of the violence is sudden and shocking, the idea of a 9 year old exacting revenge by turning the murderers of his parents against one another is cool, and some of the action is genuinely exciting. There is a certain ‘dating’ to the material, some of the editing could’ve used a trim and sometimes, Adam Baldwin’s performance isn’t as good as I know it could be. This isn’t a film I think anyone needs to smash down doors to see…but if you happen to come across it somewhere in your cinematic travels…it’s a solid and entertaining time-waster…and sometimes that’s all you need.