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Death Hunt (1981)

by on 2013/06/06

Death Hunt (1981)

“Well, well, well. Look who just got uncivilized.”

* * *

Death Hunt is an account of “The Mad Trapper”, Albert Johnson, one so fictionalized it’s a wonder they dared to sell it as “based on a true story”. In fact, it resembles nothing so much as Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood, if it starred a personal hero, Dick Proenneke.

Directed by Peter Hunt (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), starring The Dirty Dozen’s Charles Bronson as Johnson and Lee Marvin as Edgar Miller – the RCMP veteran obliged to pursue him – it stretches the bounds of a western into 1931’s Yukon.

When Johnson saves an abused animal from a pack of rural rednecks, he incurs their wrath, and they wage a campaign of attack. For better or worse, he’s more than their match and – in defending his homestead – one of them is killed, prompting the involvement of the law.

The initial attempt to bring him in feels like one type of story, an Assault on Precinct 13 flick, where an outnumbered force fends off an entire army. Eventually, the movie pivots into another style, a dogged manhunt resembling The Fugitive.

It probably goes without saying there’s a special camaraderie between the leading men, each one respecting the other for their survival skills and temperament.

The cast is padded needlessly with several familiar faces, including Tantoo Cardinal (Legends of the Fall), Maury Chaykin (Whale Music), Angie Dickinson, Ed Lauter, William Sanderson (Crossfire Trail), August Schellenberg (45 rpm), and Carl Weathers (Predator). Unfortunately, they’re not given much to do, are under-developed, or outright unnecessary. Any suggestion of depth or poignancy, for example in Dickinson’s subplot – as Johnson’s ex-wife, and now Miller’s lover – are subverted, unfinished, or ignored.

The entire movie is possessed of strange inconsistencies, perhaps a function of norms in the time it was made. The pace is slow and uneven for a thriller. It’s also strangely debauched, or outright offensive which, further, may be function of the norms in the time it is set.

The constant referral to Weathers as “you black bastard” is an irritant. Crude humour, even among the “good guys” is typified by such comments as “the best part of you ran down your mama’s leg”. At another time, the “bad guys” trade insults until Chaykin’s character makes the relatively inoffensive comment “you’re so dumb I could sell you dirt” at which point, an orchestra hit erupts, the shots close in, and the action grinds to a halt. It all screams of some significance I didn’t pick up on.

The visuals struck me as average, nothing exceptional, but the music distracted me almost constantly. To say the composer, Jerrold Immel, emulates Jerry Goldsmith is a massive understatement. Aside from a few John Williams-isms, his score was a grab bag of ill-fitting tricks, with Apes percussion, Alien sounds, military touches and, occasionally, a western harmonica. I don’t necessarily hate those things, but I didn’t love their combination here. To borrow from Terry Jones’ faux-review of Hitchhiker’s Guide, every sound is a gem, it’s only the order they’re put in that worries me.

It was a weird experience overall, a jumble I wanted to enjoy more than I did. I’ve been sitting on this video for at least a couple of years, waiting for the chance to watch it at last. I’ve enjoyed the director’s previous efforts, as well as the work of the cast. The story is compelling, Canadian and, arguably, a western.

Instead of realizing its First Blood potential, however, it felt like a twisted version of a childhood evening, flicking through random television channels, an assortment of Grizzly Adams, Little House on the Prairie, The Littlest Hobo, and Swiss Family Robinson, all separated by flashes of Baby Blue Movies.

Sadly, even that description sounds better than Death Hunt actually is.

* * *

Rated R

97 minutes

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