Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On DVD: Action Double Feature: THE LAST HARD MEN (1976) and SKY RIDERS (1976)

The venerable Shout! Factory has released the latest in its Fox-licensed Double Feature line.  In this case, it also functions as a James Coburn double feature set with a pair of 1976 releases: THE LAST HARD MEN and SKY RIDERS.

(US - 1976)

An engrossing but flawed western, the brutal THE LAST HARD MEN struggles to find a consistent tone.  It can't decide whether to be an old-fashioned programmer or a meditative, post-WILD BUNCH bloodbath.  It's directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, an old-schooler who helmed several late-period John Wayne vehicles, but was likely forbidden by the Duke to ever let things get as R-rated as they do here.  It's an absolute certainty that Wayne never would've been OK with starring in a brutal revenge flick with gratuitous bloodletting, rape, F-bombs, and people being burned alive.  In 1976, it even had to be strange seeing Charlton Heston in a film this graphically violent.

When vicious half-breed killer Provo (Coburn) engineers an escape with other prisoners while on railroad duty, retired marshal Burgade (Heston) knows he's coming after him.  Burgade was responsible for putting Provo away and probably killed his wife in a chaotic shootout.  When Provo abducts Burgade's daughter Susan (Barbara Hershey), the ex-lawman, accompanied by Susan's would-be suitor Hal (Christopher Mitchum) hunts down Provo and his gang.

Aside from McLaglen's struggle to balance an old-fashioned storyline with Peckinpah splatter (right down to the slo-mo), THE LAST HARD MEN suffers a bit from a draggy middle, but the first and last third are quite entertaining.  That's due in large part to the effortless command of the screen that guys like Heston and Coburn demonstrate.  Both actors were on the cusp of entering their waning days on the A-list by 1976, but they carry this thing on their mighty shoulders.  Heston is pretty much Heston, right down to his usual tendency for melodramatic line readings that border on self-parody (think of his beautifully self-deprecating cameo in WAYNE'S WORLD 2) and his hammy overacting (nobody grunts "You bastard!" like Heston).  Coburn, playing one of the most despicable characters of his career, is just a total bastard throughout.  They just don't make actors like these guys anymore.  The impressive supporting cast includes Jorge Rivero, Michael Parks (doing an early version of his Earl McGraw schtick as the sheriff), Thalmus Rasulala, John Quade, and Larry Wilcox, just before CHiPS, playing the one member of Provo's gang with a conscience.  (R, 97 mins)

(US - 1976)

Coburn is the hero in the second feature, Douglas Hickox's enjoyably ludicrous SKY RIDERS, of which I'd actually never even heard until this set was announced.  In Greece, rich American industrialist Bracken (Robert Culp) is targeted by a group of terrorists who kidnap his wife Ellen (Susannah York) and their two children.  Well, actually their oldest isn't aware that his father is really McCabe (Coburn), Ellen's ex-husband, and ex-con soldier of fortune who decides to take matters into his own hands when the incompetent Greek police, headed by Inspector Nikolidis (Charles Aznavour), botch a rescue attempt.  After discovering Ellen and the children are being held at an abandoned monastery at the top of a mountain, McCabe does what anyone in his position would do:  hires a traveling troupe of professional hang-gliders to fly into the impregnable fortress under the cover of darkness and pull of a daring commando rescue.

That premise sounds awfully similar to the later 1990 Italian trash classic THE LAST MATCH, where a pro football player's daughter is abducted while on vacation and the QB, his coach, and his teammates launch a commando rescue mission...in full game-day garb.  While SKY RIDERS isn't quite that silly, it is fairly ridiculous.  It's a fun flick, though, and once the rescue mission gets underway, it plays a lot like a 1980s Antonio Margheriti actioner.  You could easily sub in David Warbeck for Coburn and there wouldn't be much difference, other than SKY RIDERS having nicer Hollywood production values.  Well, for the most part.  The initial hang-gliding raid is severely compromised by some extremely unconvincing, badly-done day-for-night shots--the aerial cinematography team of MacGillivary-Freeman handled the airborne scenes, and it's far from their best work; for a point of comparison, they also did the aerial shots in the opening credits of THE SHINING just four years later. 

Coburn's engaging screen presence gives SKY RIDERS a lot of extra kick, and he gets decent support from an eclectic cast that's often underutilized (especially Culp, who disappears for large chunks of screen time), including John Beck, Harry Andrews, Steven Keats, and, as the lead terrorist, Eurocult fixture Werner Pochath, who I presume is only here because Klaus Kinski said no. (PG, 91 mins)

Both transfers look very nice and are 2.35, despite packaging that indicates 1.78, an error that was also on the packaging for the last Action Double Feature of THE NICKEL RIDE and 99 & 44/100% DEAD.  Neither THE LAST HARD MEN nor SKY RIDERS are lost classics, but they're a great deal for the price, especially for Coburn fans.

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