Two action movies from Shout! Factory, a fine double feature if ever there was one - the first film an unofficial prequel to an established major studio classic, the second one of the finest movies Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson would make in the later part of their careers. Here's a look at how it all goes down...
Butch & Sundance - The Early Days
Directed by Richard Lester, this 1979 film explores the early part of the story told in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid with Tom Berenger and William Katt in the roles made famous by Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The story, such as it is, tells us how the two titular outlaws first met and then goes on to explore the consequences of some of their earliest heists and misadventures together. When we first meet Butch Cassidy is looking to make a name for himself. He wants to be famous and makes no qualms about that whatsoever, even going so far as to pay a hobo to walk around town and spread word of his legend. Unfortunately the hobo refers to him as Dutch Cassidy, but he gets an A for effort. As he comes to partner up with Sundance, we realize who is doing most of the work here and who is really concerned with getting what he can out of the heists and who is really concerned with playing celebrity outlaw and reaping whatever rewards he can from that status.
Yyou could call this film free spirited or you could call it plot-less and disjointed - you'd be right either way. This is really just a series of bumbling heist set pieces strong together by the thinnest of storylines and there's really very little at all to the plot. That said, the movie works thanks to the charisma that Berenger and Katt show in the lead roles. You can't help but like these two guys - if they're not as charming and suave as Newman and Redford were before them, well, that probably won't shock anyone but they are very good in their parts here. Quite frankly, they make the film watchable. Guest spots from a young Brian Dennehy, an instantly recognizable Christopher Lloyd are fun, and look for Peter Weller and Jill Ekineberry to pop up in supporting roles before the end credits roll, but this is Berenger and Katt's show all the way and the two do make the most of it.
Directed by Richard Lester, whose career was at a commercial dead end for a while after his masterful The Bed Sitting Room (released on Blu-ray from the BFI - see it now and be amazed!) went over the heads of the audience of the day and completely flopped. It's come to be regarded as a bit of a masterpiece over the years but it put him in a bad spot so far as finding work. He tumbled around on various project, some good, some bad, but shows a confidence here and a knack for pacing that helps the film along quite a bit. Lester has a good eye and sense for working humor into situations that may not always call for it and that helps make the movie as watchable as it is. All in all, if the film isn't a classic the way the movie that inspired it is regarded to be, it's still a perfectly entertaining and wholly enjoyable picture in its own right.
Charles Bronson (immortalized in hits like Death Wish and The Dirty Dozen) plays Albert Johnson, a trapper in the Yukon Territories in the 1930s who puts a stop to a dog fight and buys one of the dogs off of a man named Hazel (Ed Lauter of Death Wish 3).
The problem arises when Hazel decides that Johnson didn't give him what the dog was worth and he and a few cronies decide to go get the dog back from Johnson whether he likes it or not. Obviously, Johnson doesn't like it and he ends up putting a bullet through the head of one of Hazel's pals.
This is where Lee Marvin (also immortalized in movies like Point Blank and The Dirty Dozen) comes in. Marvin plays a curmudgeonly old officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police named Sgt. Millen who has to uphold the law in the rough little town where all of this is going down. More often than not, Millen is more interested in drinking whiskey and messing around with local women than upholding the law, but periodically he gets inspired and when he does, watch out, because he's a bad ass.
Millen knows that Johnson probably had a very good reason for doing what he did, but being an officer of the law he has no choice but to bring him in and make him stand trial. Johnson wants no part of that, however, and soon enough Millen, with the help of his fellow Mounties Constable Adams (Andrew Stevens of DePalma's The Fury) and Sundog (Carl Weathers. Yep. Action Jackson), ends up chasing Johnson through the thick of the Canadian northlands in the dead of winter.
Meanwhile, the local newspaper has put a one thousand dollar bounty on Johnson's head, assuming that he is the mad trapper - a local maniac who is going around killing men out working in the woods to steal their gold teeth. To make matters even more complicated for Millen and company, head office has decided to send in an RCAF pilot to help track Johnson through the woods before he makes it across the border into Alaska, and ultimately, freedom.
Based on actual events that did take place in the Yukon during the 1930's, this is a movie that will put hair on your chest. Starring a fantastic cast of manly mountain men, Death Hunt (directed by Peter Hunt who also directed Bronson in Assassination and Marvin in Shout At The Devil) is a fast paced and violent film that follows these two men who have a lot more in common than either one realizes at first. Despite the fact that Bronson and Marvin have really only got one big scene together on camera in the film, the two true tough guys of Hollywood do an excellent job playing off of one another through their binoculars as they track each other through the winter wonderland.
The cinematography does a fine job of capturing the desolation of the Yukon during the wintertime - at times the movie feels cold... literally! - and mixing it up with some good old-fashioned shoot'em up violence. When Bronson arises from the ashes of his bombed out cabin, pumping his shotgun as fast as humanly possible, you know the man means business and it's moments like this that kick Death Hunt into high gear.
Interestingly enough, Death Hunt was co-produced by former Shaw Brothers producer Raymond Chow and Golden Harvest Productions, known (at least in North America) mainly for their martial arts films and their action films in Hong Kong.
Shout Factory's 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfers are very nice indeed. While the first minute or two of Death Hunt look excessively grainy, after that the film looks sharp and clean for the duration. There's a nice amount of detail evident in the background and the foreground of the film and considering how much of the movie takes place outside in the snow, thankfully the shimmering is kept to a minimum. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression and only some mild edge enhancement is present. Butch & Sundance isn't quite as clean looking as the later film but it still looks fine, showing good detail and fine color reproduction in spite of the odd speck of print damage here and there. Skin tones are good, black levels too, and the disc is well authored
The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks are pretty standard stuff but they get the job done without any problems. Dialogue for both films is always clean and clear and there are no problems with hiss or distortion. One or two minor scenes are just a tad flat in both pictures, but I'm being nitpicky here. For the most part, both features sound quite good.
Shout! Factory has supplied trailers for both features and for a few other titles we can assume they have the rights to, menus, and scene selection for both films. Although commentary tracks were confirmed as recorded for Death Hunt, they haven't been included here, indicating it may get its own release down the road.
Shout! Factory's double feature release of Butch & Sundance: The Early Years / Death Hunt makes up for what it lacks in supplements with loads of action and a ridiculous amount of entertainment value. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.