Death Hunt (1981) was the last "serious" film of star Charles Bronson. The reliable supporting actor-turned-Euro-star found mainstream success in the U.S. with Death Wish (1974), then for the next several years mostly appeared in genre action-thrillers similar to those of box office rival Clint Eastwood. But Bronson's next picture after Death Hunt was Death Wish II (1982), the first of four increasingly silly sequels and a host of other second-rate, violent, over-the-top yet still entertaining schlock, mostly for Cannon Films.
Those films, particularly reviled in Siskel & Ebert's high-profile movie review show, tarnished Bronson's legacy. Today he's unjustly dismissed largely because of those late-career choices but, particularly during the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, and on-and-off through Death Hunt, Bronson made superior films sorely in need of mainstream reappraisal. If you haven't seen Farewell, Friend, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Rider on the Rain, Violent City (1970), The Mechanic (1972), the original Death Wish (1974), Hard Times (1975), From Noon Till Three (1976), and Telefon (1978), you don't know what you're missing.
Death Hunt (1981), directed by editor-turned-director Peter Hunt (On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Gold), is a fictionalized account of the 1930-31 manhunt for Yukon Territory trapper Albert Johnson (Bronson). The set-up is both familiar (recalling Bronson's earlier Chato's Land) and the plot relatively simple, but it plays to Bronson's reticent, solitary strengths and for a change he matched against a nemesis of equal weight and caliber, Bronson's Dirty Dozen co-star, Lee Marvin.
The movie, despite the Canadian setting and Hollywood cast was, incredibly, actually a co-production of Golden Harvest, the Hong Kong company known for its Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films. Released in the U.S. by Fox, it arrives on Blu-ray via Timeless Media and includes several good extra features.
Appearing out of the wilderness, Albert Johnson arrives in a small Yukon village just in time to witness the last, bloody stages of an organized dogfight. Apparently appalled by the cruelty, he pays Hazel (the late Ed Lauter) $200 for his fight dog, the canine near death. Hazel initially accepts Johnson's offer but then changes his mind, demanding $1,000 for his animal. Johnson forcibly rescues the animal.
Humiliated in front of his unsavory friends (played by, among others, William Sanderson and Len Lesser), they and Hazel attempt to storm Johnson's isolated cabin. Jimmy Tom (Denis Lacroix) succeeds in killing the dog, for which Johnson shoots him dead.
Hazel demands that Johnson be arrested for murder. Despite his dislike of Hazel, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sgt. Edgar Millen (Lee Marvin) feels duty-bound to arrest Johnson, though he completely sympathizes with Johnson's actions. Joined by Constable Alvin Adams (Andrew Stevens), trapper Sundog Brown (Carl Weathers), and Hazel and his trigger-happy cohorts, they prepare to again storm Johnson's cabin. However, Johnson has anticipated their arrival: he's dig a deep pit to elude their gunfire and stocked his cabin with more than 700 rounds of ammunition.
Hazel's annoyingly shrill grandstanding notwithstanding, Death Hunt is a solid little film thanks to Bronson's completely believable endurance in the harsh Yukon winter and unendingly clever attempts to elude the posse after him. Johnson is a trapper, a mountain man, and his simple yet ingenious efforts to avoid capture are all reasonable and logical. His ability to stay one step ahead of the law gradually impresses Millen and, from a distant in all but one scene, the two older men come to respect one another.
Indeed, probably the film's best moment comes when Millen, looking through binoculars trying to spot Johnson, catches sight of the fugitive trapper high on a ridge eyeing Millen through his binoculars at the same time. Each is startled and amused by this, and they express an unspoken admiration for the other's skills.
The film has other nice touches. Angie Dickinson plays Millen's lover, her late husband's death having stranded her in the Canadian wilderness. She and Marvin have the kind of mature yet also very sexual relationship rarely seen in movies today. Looking at Death Hunt now, it's amusing to be reminded that Dickinson was then a novelty: a sexy older woman, and yet she was barely fifty, the same age Elizabeth Shue, Lisa Kudrow, Helen Hunt, Vanessa Williams, and Edie Falco all are now, and they certainly aren't defined by their age.
Video & Audio
Death Hunt opens with title elements that are pretty dire, full of grain and soft as well. But the 1.85:1 widescreen picture immediately "pops" into clarity once those end, and compared to the film's earlier DVD release, this new Blu-ray really shows off the spectacular Alberta, Canada locations, which are particularly breathtaking in the film's second-half. (With the added clarity one can also appreciate just how physical the 60-year-old Bronson's performance was. Some of it looks relatively dangerous, even.) The 2.0 DTS-MA stereo is pretty good for an early ‘80s release. The R-Rated film is Region A encoded.
The unexpectedly bountiful supplements include two audio commentary tracks, the first with writers Michael Grais and Mark Victor, as well as DP James Devis; the second with actors Andrew Stevens, Len Lesser, and William Sanderson. Also included is an original trailer and a 10-minute interview with co-producer Albert S. Ruddy (The Godfather). Both are in high-def.
A neat little film with star power to spare thanks to two terrific, minimalist performances from Bronson and Marvin, whose great faces (Where are such faces in movies today?) express so much saying so little, Death Hunt is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.