The Film: 4/5
Travis Knight (Harley Cross) is just your average 9-year-old kid growing up in the American Midwest. He also happened to witness a mob execution in Texas. The FBI stashed him and his parents (Cooper Huckabee, Suzanne Savoy) in the Witness Protection Program and moved the family to an isolated farmhouse in rural Oklahoma. But it doesn't take long for the Family to find them. Hit men Cohen (Roy Scheider) and Tate (Adam Baldwin) are dispatched to grab the boy and bring him back to Houston so he can be questioned about what he saw, and kill anyone who stands in their way. Cohen and Tate work well together but when they're not on the job they can barely contain their contempt for one another. Cohen is a 30-year veteran of being a professional assassin who feels his end drawing near, while Tate is a sadistic hothead who finds killing to be a pure joy. The duo assaults the farmhouse, kills Travis' parents and the FBI agents guarding them, and snatch the boy. When news of their violent exploits gets the police on their trail fast Tate gets scared and wants to shoot the kid, but Cohen refuses because he always sees a job through to its end. On the long drive back to Houston Travis quickly ascertains that the shaky alliance between the two killers is on the verge of collapsing and decides to use it to his advantage once he realizes that escaping their devious clutches is not likely. Turning this pair of desperate hit men on each other is his only hope of survival, but it could also backfire horribly on him.
I wasn't expecting Cohen & Tate to kick me in the nuts as hard as it did, but by the time I finished watching it I had asked myself repeatedly and in increasingly angry just where in the hell this movie has been all my life. Eric Red's malicious and blood-stained directorial debut was bankrolled for chump change and then dumped into theaters and home video purgatory in 1989 with barely a notice. It's the perfect kind of under-the-radar B-flick that benefits the most from a Blu-ray resurrection. Years before he made his reputation as a talented writer of grim and gritty classic horror films like The Hitcher and Near Dark, Red made a 26-minute short film entitled Gunmen's Blues starring Darwin Joston of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (the original and still best movie to carry that name) about an aging hit man who finds himself embroiled in a violent showdown with a brash, younger competitor. Though Red never acknowledges it on the bonus features Gunmen's Blues seems to have served as a springboard for Cohen & Tate's story. Using the O. Henry short story "The Ransom of Red Chief" as additional inspiration Red constructs a lean and mean thriller that rockets forth from its first frame with brutal violence, dark humor, and tense thrills right out of an over-the-top horror flick.
Red has a real taste for using the rural open road as a backdrop for his stories. Those lonely wide open spaces are like nightmarish landscapes lurking in our imaginations where any number of unspeakable horrors can happen any no one would be the wiser. When you're stuck out in the middle of nowhere, isolated from the rest of civilization, the mind can play tricks on you and you're never quite certain who to trust. Having a small child whose parents have just been taken away from him (sort of) in the cruelest manner possible as the chief protagonist is a intriguing touch that pays off splendidly; Harley Cross takes what could have been an unsympathetic little snot and through a very convincing performance that is one of the best turns by a child actor in the 80's makes Travis a very capable and intelligent kid the audience can root for. Putting a kid in harm's way in a movie for no reason other than to create suspense can offend more close-minded viewers, but Travis has the tactical advantage of needing to remain alive until the he and the assassins reach Houston and he cleverly uses that to turn the tables on his captors. Red fully exploits the story potential in that idea with a series of increasingly suspenseful and bloody set pieces that more often than not completely defy our expectations of how such scenes usually turn out. Take for instance the scene when the hit men come across a police roadblock set up to find Travis. Many movies have used moments like this to generate tension but always had them conclude two different ways: either the killers would pass through the checkpoint without trouble, or they end up killing every cop and making an awful. The way Red writes and stages his version of that scene is so unexpectedly amazing that it becomes one of the movie's highpoints.
Let's talk about our main characters. The 80's were a fallow period in Roy Scheider's acting career since he refused to take part in any of the gradually worsening Jaws sequels. He wasn't about to stoop to appearing in pure cinematic garbage just to cash a measly paycheck - not until the next decade anyway - and his personality and unswerving acting philosophy were at odds with the new paradigm of box office heavyweight that had ushered in the end of the New Hollywood of the 70's. During that era unorthodox actors like Scheider were propelled to stardom in film projects that embraced the changing cultural landscape in the U.S., but once the dawn of the modern blockbuster arrived in the form of Jaws (which starred Scheider ironically) and Star Wars those days were essentially numbered. As the hardcore professional killer Cohen the actor gets his meatiest role since headlining William Friedkin's underrated 1977 adventure Sorcerer. Scheider is a perfect choice to play a once-venerated hit man who has become detached and cynical in the face of a shifting world. Like Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch or Frankie Bono in Allen Baron's little-seen 1961 crime drama Blast of Silence, Cohen accepts that there are no happy endings for men like him and he intends to meet his maker on his terms. He shows little empathy for Travis at first but establishes a fatherly trust with the boy to keep him in line during the trip. Scheider is also allowed to give us passing glimpses at the life his character once lead in a scene where Cohen pulls over so he can mail an envelope full of cash to a women named Pamela. She could be his wife, daughter, or sister, but what matters is that at the end of the day there exists a flesh-and-blood human being beneath Cohen's diamond tough exterior. Scheider plays the part with brusque charisma and a quietly dark edge and delivers a stellar performance up there with the best of his career.
Fresh off his scene-stealing turn as the dehumanized Marine grunt Animal Mother in Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam War drama Full Metal Jacket, Adam Baldwin brings that character's savage nature to his performance as Cohen's unstable partner in crime Tate. Sounding like he's road-testing his Jayne Cobb voice for Joss Whedon's Firefly and Serenity, Baldwin's performance makes the younger of the assassin team completely off-the-wall nuts and a genuine threat. I've read reviews criticizing Baldwin of going over-the-top in his acting choices, but it could also be said that he's giving an appropriate performance for a character who was born over the top and plans on living there for his entire life. He is scary good, maybe too much at times, and Baldwin proves more than capable of handling the explosive action scenes with gonzo panache. He also shares an enjoyably spiteful interplay with Scheider; you could say that this movie was a great "hate story". Speaking of the action, Red packs his story with a fistful of tightly-paced set pieces including a car chase with a police cruiser but with the cop car in the lead, a Grand Guignol showdown between Cohen and Tate in a moonlit oil field, and a valiant last stand on the streets of Houston where Cohen chooses his fate and ends the film not with a whimper but with one mean mother of a bang. How about that?
Shout! Factory's 1080p high-definition 1.78:1 widescreen transfer of Cohen & Tate is remarkable when compared to worn-out, two decade-old VHS tapes and the subpar "Limited Edition Collection" DVD released by MGM in March 2011. The movie was shot and exhibited in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but the quality of the remastering job on this Blu-ray does not suffer from the slight compression. The image is very clean and mostly free of grain with a sufficient amount of digital noise reduction. If there was ever a face made for HD it must be Roy Scheider's. His iconic visage looks carved out of an oversized, million-year-old bar of Dial soap. The lurid color scheme pops off of the screen with vibrant reds and blues that compare to Suspiria at times and the shadows and darkness of the endless night the characters must traverse are sharp enough to resemble bottomless pools that envelope damned souls. For audio options we have English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, and to be perfectly honest I couldn't find a single noticeable difference between the dual tracks. Both are strong and clear with absolutely no audio distortion. Music, dialogue, and the multi-layered ambient effects mix are all boosted to solid volumes that never threaten to overwhelm each other. No subtitles are included.
Leading things off is an audio commentary with writer/director Red. Though far from being the most dynamic speaker he does offer up a lot of background information about making his first movie as a director. Having another commentator for Red to interact with would have made this a better track, but it works fine as a one-time listen.
Red repeats some of the info he shared in the commentary but also offers up some fresh insights in the generically-titled retrospective featurette "A Look Back at Cohen & Tate" (21 minutes). Complimenting his stories are brand new interviews with director of photography Victor J. Kemper, editor Edward Abroms, and actors Harley Cross and Kenneth McCabe. The production, working with stars Scheider and Baldwin, and the ratings board battle Red encountered over the film's excessive violence provide the meat of the documentary. Baldwin's presence is missed if not for the reason that he could have offered some additional perspective on the acting decisions that often had him clashing with Red. Overall this is a solid doc.
Fans of the movie hoping to get a taste of the violence snipped from the final cut to avoid the dreaded "X" rating will be happy to find all of that meaty gore among twenty minutes of deleted and uncut scenes. Presented here in mostly finished form - indicating that they were cut near the end of post-production - with polished editing and music, there are also some minor little character beats as well as alternate opening and ending sequences. But you really came here for the deleted splatter and the original cuts of the farmhouse massacre and the final confrontation between the killers do not disappoint in that department. Shame that Red could not have gone back and edited an unrated version for this Blu-ray. Maybe the cut that was ultimately released to theaters and video was his preferred version.
An extensive still gallery featuring behind-the-scenes and promotional pics and storyboards and a theatrical trailer close out the extras.
The fact that Shout! Factory would expend time, energy, and money on putting a nasty piece of work like Cohen & Tate that has went mostly unloved for more than two decades on Blu-ray with a juiced-up transfer and excellent bonus features just makes me love that company even more than I did previously. Violent, uncompromising, and wickedly humorous, Eric Red's directorial bow is terrific pulp fiction with the societal grace of a coiled cobra.