Billed as a precursor to the 1983 Roy Scheider cult classic Blue Thunder, the 1973 made-for-television movie Birds of Prey would probably best be (glibly) summed up as "Duel with helicopters." Starring David Janssen (of "The Fugitive" TV show fame) as former military pilot Harry Walker, Birds of Prey is a taut, efficient thriller (which clocks in at a brisk 81 minutes) that occasionally transcends the moribund thriller-of-the-week genre and delivers some satisfying thrills.
Harry, currently employed as a traffic helicopter pilot for a radio station in Salt Lake City, witnesses a bank robbery and abduction of a teller, Teresa Jane (Elayne Heilveil) – giving chase as they make their getaway (first in a car, later in a helicopter), Harry must rely upon his war buddy Jim McAndrew (Ralph Meeker), a local police captain. These World War II comrades (Harry can't put the war behind him, Jim has adjusted to civilian life well) find themselves locked in a breathless pursuit that features some truly impressive aerial stunt work, performing in a pre-CGI-laziness era.
Directed by William A. Graham, Birds of Prey doesn't linger long enough for viewers to ponder the plotholes or the what-were-they-thinking devices (such as inserting stock aerial footage from WWII to hammer home Harry's mental state). It's diverting, the scenes involving flight are well-staged and hold up remarkably well and if nothing else, Janssen doesn't embarrass himself. Fans of B-level actioners might find themselves highly entertained; everyone else move along – there's nothing to see here.
Birds of Prey suffers from one of the most atrocious prints I've viewed in quite some time. You name the defect and it's present here – it's grainy, scratched, washed-out and in the more lowly-lit scenes, damn near unwatchable. A truly horrifying image (although given the cult status and relative affordability of the disc, not surprising).
Whereas the image is godawful, the aural end of Birds of Prey fares slightly better – there are drop-outs and distortion as well as some unpleasant cracks in the upper registers of the score. Slightly better doesn't equal enjoyable however; this too is one of the more unbearable soundtracks I've suffered through in some time.
The only bonus material included are some biographies for Meeker and Janssen and a handful of trailers for other VCI flicks.
While it occasionally achieves slightly more than it likely set out to accomplish, Birds of Prey is nevertheless a solidly entertaining and remarkably well-crafted B-movie that delivers satisfying thrills and impressive aerial footage. Rent it.