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Directed by Tom Gries in 1975 and based on Alistair MacLean's novel of the same name, Breakheart Pass begins in the late 1800s at a small town just off a railroad stop. Here a man named John Deakin (Charles Bronson) is caught cheating at cards just as some military men led by Major Claremont (Ed Lauter) happen to be around. When it turns out that Deakin is wanted, he's nabbed and put aboard the train heading west where he'll be dealt with upon arrival. The train's mission is to deliver some much needed medical supplies to Fort Humboldt, where there's currently a diphtheria outbreak wreaking havoc.
Along for the ride on the train are Governor Richard Fairchild (Richard Crenna) and his girlfriend Marica (Jill Ireland), Reverend Peabody (Bill McKinney), Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson), military man O'Brien (Charles Durning), a cook named Carlos (Archie Moore) along with a host of soldiers. When a man turns up dead on the train, Deakin's medical experience comes in handy and he notes that what first appeared to be a seizure is in fact a murder. As the ride continues, a few more people wind up dead and the telegraph's ability to get in touch with the fort that is their final destination starts to get tricky.
Breakheart Pass is a solid thriller/mystery with elements of western movie and adventure films mixed into things very effectively. Gries does a nice job with the pacing and the reveals, effectively building suspense and keeping those who haven't seen the film before guessing right up until the final conflict plays out on the screen. This applies, for the most part, to who we think John Deakin really is. We're told he's a criminal and we see law enforcement catch him in action cheating at cards, but it's clear pretty early on that there's more to this character than just a long rap sheet and a habit of cheating at poker. Marica sees this in the first half of the picture and takes a liking to the prisoner, though still unsure, as the audience is, what he's really up to or who he really is. As the story plays out (and the plot synopsis has been left intentionally vague in this review as spoilers would really hurt the experience of seeing the movie for the first time), the story twists and turns quite nicely and it all resolves in a very satisfying manner.
As to the acting, Bronson is in fine form here, handling himself as well as you'd expect in the action set pieces (though there is one fight atop a train where it's clear a stuntman was used) but also doing just as well in the film's quieter and more dramatic moments. He's not acting outside his comfort zone here but he does what he does well and it works. He does, understandably, have good chemistry with his then wife Jill Ireland, who is better here than she typically is, her character coming across as kind and likeable. The supporting players are also great here. Ed Lauter is strong as the Major, and Ben Johnson as reliable as ever as the Marshal. Charles Durning plays his part well, as does Archie Moore and Richard Crenna as well. Pretty much all of the cast members feel ‘right' for their respective parts, and the movie is all the better for it.
Production values are solid across the board. We get a really nice score from the legendary Jerry Goldsmith that compliments the action well, and some nice stunt and action set pieces here as well, highlighted by a fantastic sequence where a train goes off the tracks and down a cliff that really makes you appreciate all the work that went into doing this practically and without the aid of CGI.
Breakheart Pass arrives on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer provided by Studio Canal framed at 1.85.1 widescreen taking up just over 31.1GBs of space on the 50GB disc. The transfer generally looks very good. The image is consistently film-like, showing plenty of natural grain but not much at all in the way of noticeable print damage aside from a few spots where some opticals are used where some white specks can be spotted. Detail is very good here and colors are accurately reproduced and black levels are pretty solid too. There aren't any issues with any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement to note and the strong bit rate ensures that compression artifacts aren't ever a problem. All in all, it looks very good.
The only audio option on the disc is a 24-bit DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track in English with optional subtitles provided in English only. This is a fairly dialogue driven film but the track handles everything well, giving things some punch when the movie calls for it and doing a very nice job with the score. No problems with any hiss or distortion and the levels are balanced nicely. The subtitles are clean, clear, easy to read but you might spot a typo or two here and there.
An audio commentary track from Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathanial Thompson is the main extra on the disc, it's a lively talk that covers a lot of ground. They go over Alistair MacLean's source novel, discuss director Tom Gries' life and career, offer plenty of information on the various cast members including Bronson and Ireland but pretty much all of the other principals as well, compare the picture to other action pictures and generally just do a nice, thorough job of going over the movie and its production history in an amiable and listenable fashion.
The disc also a trailer for the feature and a bunch of bonus trailers for other Kino Lorber properties, as well as menus and chapter selection options.
Breakheart Pass is a briskly paced thriller with some strong performances from a really fun cast. It's tense, reasonably stylish, and it will do a nice job of keeping first time viewers guessing right up until the end. Kino's Blu-ray offers this underappreciated Bronson picture in a very nice presentation and with a solid audio commentary track as its main extra feature. 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.