Once in a while, a niche title manages to find its way on DVD. Shout Factory's latest double-feature disc, contains two "forgotten" James Coburn films from 1976, "The Last Hard Men" and "The Sky Riders," while both films are not comparable in objective quality, both serve as a testament to Coburn's charismatic natural abilities as a leading man.
"The Last Hard Men" was on a personal level, a holy grail DVD release. A mid-70s Western produced in the wake of Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," the film featured a double billing of Charlton Heston and James Coburn as foes on the opposite side of the law, carving a swath of violence into the landscape. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, the man behind the cult-classic (and MST3K showpiece) "Mitchell!," "The Last Hard Men" is a no-frills, dirty western that is at it's worst merely a competent piece of filmmaking.
Fans of Charlton Heston will want to seek out this little gem, as the veteran actor loses himself in the role of elder lawman Sam Burgade, pulled out of retirement following his biggest rival, Provo (Coburn) stages a brutal escape from a chain gang and tricks his adversary in a daring kidnapping of Burgade's daughter, Susan (Barbara Hershey). Heston's screen presence is used to great effect, but comes with a somberness at key moments that makes Sam Burgade come alive as a character. Picking up the other end of the acting baggage is Coburn who is cool and collected, almost tricking you into finding him a likeable adversary until he shows how dark and deep his heart in, at the expense of Susan's safety.
McLaglen's direction keeps the film moving along at an intense pace, saving the final face-to-face showdown for the end of the third act, with Burgade and his posse, including a young Michael Parks as Burgade's successor and Christopher Mitchum as Susan's milquetoast suitor; Mitchum might bear a striking resemblance to his famous father, but similarities end there, with the offspring delivering a stiff performance that knocks the whole package down a notch. The violence in "The Last Hard Men" might not match the exploitative spectacle as modern films, but the grounded nature of the whole affair makes every gunshot, stabbing, and throat cutting felt that much more.
"The Last Hard Men" doesn't reinvent the western the way Peckinpah or Leone did years prior; it merely takes a cue from them and puts a gritty, no punched pulled coat of paint on the dual tale of law vs. lawlessness and one father's quest to protect his only remaining connection to humanity. It's not the prettiest western made, but the strength of the lead performances, the story's accessibility and the quality of the action make it a film that holds up on repeat performances; in my book it's one of Heston's most underappreciated roles and one James Coburn's best.
The most "lighthearted" of James Coburn's three 1976 performances, "The Sky Riders" shares some surface similarities with "The Last Hard Men." This time out a woman (Susannah York) and her two children are kidnapped by Greek terrorists and it's up to Jim McCabe (Coburn) to get them back for wealthy businessman, Jonas Bracken (a merely "present" Robert Culp). Right off the bat, "The Sky Riders" shows signs of sporting a thin premise and hokey advancement, clumsily fitting the rugged McCabe into the fold by making one of the children kidnapped his offspring via an old relationship with Ellen (York). The film sets off on course of detective story meets rescue film as McCabe uses his "underworld" connections to track down the kidnappers, making fools of the Greek authorities in the process.
In reality, director Douglas Hickox overplays his hand with a slow-burn film that doesn't live up to viewers expectation of the third-act payoff: a hang-glider led assault to a mountain fortress (Bond fans will recognize it as the same mountain fortress from "For Your Eyes Only") and poorly edited, genuinely dull shootout between Coburn, Greek military and the villainous, generic terrorists. If my writing is devoid of enthusiasm, it's because "The Sky Riders" has little ambition outside its titular action sequence.
Once again, Coburn's charisma carries the generic story, with the actor allowed to be genuinely cool and calm, even in dire circumstances. The initial meeting between McCabe and the hang-gliding troupe he hires to teach him is light and breezy, breaking the lukewarm tension the film attempts to establish. The ensuing aerial stunt work is definitely worth checking out, but as quickly as it's over and the bullet start to fly, the movie grinds to a halt, making a 10-minute at best sequence drag on nearly twice as long; faithful viewers are awarded a final stunt sequence that washes away some of the tedium, but doesn't fully redeem the film's so-so finale as a whole.
To be fair, "The Sky Riders" doesn't give any air's of being anything more than a B-movie, but even a good B-movie knows not to overstay its welcome, which this film does, making "The Sky Riders'" forgotten film status fully understandable and its rediscovery on DVD mostly for action movie junkies and Coburn aficionados.
Video and Audio
THE LAST HARD MEN
"The Last Hard Men" is presented with a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, despite the erroneous claims of it being 1.78:1 on the packaging. The damage free transfer sports strong color that noticeably bleeds, a heavy level of grain/noise, and very inconsistent detail, some of which can be attributed to the source material containing a few poorly focused shots. Edge enhancement rears its ugly head, most visible in bright daytime sequences, while compression is a minor issue; the biggest technical hiccup are some moiré noise that plague the first costume worn by Heston and a few background shots later in the film.
The film's Dolby Digital English mono soundtrack is passable, with clear dialogue but features some high-end distortion and one or two scenes with a slight echo to the sound.
"The Sky Riders" also features a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (which is the OAR despite the incorrect 1.78:1 claim on the packaging). It's a very grainy/noisy transfer, is a tad on the soft side, but lacks the saturation issues and other distracting elements present in "The Last Hard Men."
The Dolby Digital English mono soundtrack also features some distortion and a few scenes with lower than desired dialogue levels.
The theatrical trailer and TV spot for each film are the only extras. The box incorrectly lists a still image gallery for both film that is absent.
On the merits of "The Last Hard Men" alone, I'd recommend this affordably priced double feature. You could view "The Sky Riders" as a bonus for those who can't get enough James Coburn. While the technical presentation isn't as strong as other catalog titles, the fact that "The Last Hard Men" is finally on DVD is a reason to celebrate. Highly Recommended.