❉ Nick Clement presents his assessments of cinematic gems and cult oddities.
They certainly don’t make ’em like this anymore. Eric Red’s directorial debut from 1989, the wild-times actioner Cohen & Tate, is a nasty, pulpy, bloody blast of down and dirty filmmaking, featuring enough child endangerment to choke a full grown horse. Written by Red with his usual brand of genre smarts and directed with lots of grit and sturdy proficiency, the film stars Roy Scheider and Adam Baldwin as deranged assassins who are tasked with kidnapping a 9 year old boy who had previously witnessed a mob killing, and which proves to be their potential undoing. This is the sort of full throttle, unapologetic, hard-R action flick that’s in short supply these days, and the irony is, it would never get made in today’s Hollywood climate, despite there being plenty of people who would enjoy seeing such an item.
After an overwhelmingly tense and totally gripping opening sequence where the kid’s parents are gunned down while under witness protection by the FBI, intrepid little Travis Ross (the priceless Harley Cross who did so much with mere facial expressions) attempts to elude his captors, but is eventually nabbed by the two psychopathic killers, but not after being thrown into all manner of distress and turmoil that would leave any child utterly scarred for life. There is a bracing, casual sense of evil glee that permeates the fringes of this film, with Red clearly getting a kick out of seeing so much violent and visceral insanity unfolding in front of a prepubescent protagonist.
The propulsive narrative moves back and forth between Scheider and Baldwin grabbing the kid and then losing him, close calls with big-rigs, various murders, lots of gun-play, and some seriously funny moments of black comedy. I absolutely love it when a storyteller successfully mixes tones, as Cohen & Tate oscillates between point-blank seriousness and over the top mischief that also lets out a sick howl of laughs. And make no mistake, while Scheider and Baldwin are top billed, they are most definitely the bad guys, one more so than the other, and the true hero of his cult classic is the child. And in the realm of the R-rated action movie, I can think of only a few where a kid is put through the ringer the way Cross was here. What Red did that was so smart was treat the character of Travis like an adult, but still make him feel like a real kid and not some cheesy construct of what a kid should be.
And then there’s the hilarity that comes with the overall ineptitude of Cohen and Tate themselves as professional killers; they’re constantly getting lost and are frequently outsmarted by a child who is forced to act well beyond what’s normally expected of a person his age. As in The Hitcher and other works by Red, his usual sense of hardened violence is on full display, and it’s clear that Scheider had a ball with his no-bull-shit character which afforded him the chance to add yet another extremely memorable tough guy to his arsenal of legendary screen performances.
There’s also a slight Walter Hill vibe during certain nocturnal stretches of Cohen & Tate, and while it doesn’t attempt to hit the existential notes that Hill often explored, there’s an effective brittleness to the entire picture that hints at the hardscrabble nature of a low-budget effort from this time period. Bill Conti’s terrific, weird, and extra suspenseful musical score punctuates the entire film with perfectly timed jolts of excitement, and Victor J. Kemper’s nighttime dominated cinematography looks extra crisp and slick via Shout! Factory’s special feature loaded Blu-ray release. This is film that’s ripe for rediscovery and reconsideration for fans of this sort of ass-kicking entertainment.
❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.
❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.