Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: COHEN AND TATE (1989)

(US - 1989)

Written and directed by Eric Red.  Cast: Roy Scheider, Adam Baldwin, Harley Cross, Cooper Huckabee, Suzanne Savoy, Frank Bates. (R, 86 mins)

With a title that sounds like a late '80s buddy cop comedy, COHEN AND TATE was all but abandoned by Hemdale, who only gave it a limited release with zero publicity or advertising in January 1989 before it quietly appeared on video store shelves a year later.  The directorial debut of Eric Red, who made a name for himself as a screenwriter with 1986's THE HITCHER and 1987's NEAR DARK, the mob thriller/road movie COHEN AND TATE, inspired by O. Henry's short story The Ransom of Red Chief, may be a surface departure from Red's work in the horror genre, but it's pretty squarely in his wheelhouse, as he loves the sinister potential and inherent unease of late nights on dark highways and deserted back roads.  COHEN AND TATE makes excellent use of color, particularly in the recurrent red glow of taillights on the faces of the characters, giving it an effectively moody feel that makes it ideal for 2:00 am viewing.  COHEN AND TATE was quickly forgotten after its initial, far-below-the-radar release, but has proven surprisingly resilient in cult movie circles.  Shout! Factory has just answered the demand with a special edition Blu-ray release, which features a Red commentary, interviews with cast and crew members, and deleted/alternate scenes, including several scenes of graphic violence that had to be toned down to avoid an X rating.

After witnessing a mob hit in Houston, nine-year-old Travis Knight (Harley Cross of THE BELIEVERS and THE FLY II) and his parents are put in witness protection at a small Oklahoma farmhouse.  Thanks to an FBI agent on the mob's payroll, two hired killers show up and slaughter the agents and Travis' parents before hitting the road back to Houston to deliver Travis to the bosses.  Cohen (Roy Scheider), the older of the two and sporting a hearing aid, is cynical about his job and knows he's expendable and that guys like him can get whacked at any moment, but he's a professional and does what he's paid to do.  He's always worked alone, and he's offended that the bosses made him take a partner for this job: the hulking, sadistic, hot-headed Tate (Adam Baldwin), who just wants to shoot Travis in the head and be done with it.  Cohen doesn't like Tate and the feeling is mutual.  The perceptive Travis picks up on this and starts playing the two against each other before forming a tentative alliance with Cohen when they both figure out that Tate would just as soon kill both of them.  The job gets more complicated when a radio report reveals that Travis' dad (Cooper Huckabee) has somehow survived his gunshot wounds and has given a description of the pair to the police--perhaps the bosses have realized that Cohen's lost a step or two in his advancing age--who are now actively pursuing the pair on the way from Oklahoma to Houston.

COHEN AND TATE is an involving little B-picture but it has some major issues.  Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but the plot is frequently too far-fetched for its own good.  For instance, early on, when Travis briefly escapes and ends up with a highway patrolman (Frank Bates), does it make any sense at all that Cohen, ostensibly the cooler, more level-headed of the two killers, would drive up behind the cruiser and shoot the patrolman in the head, forcing Travis to steer the speeding vehicle from the passenger seat?  Don't they need to deliver him alive?  On what planet does that make sense?  Cohen might be hard of hearing, but he's not suffering from dementia.  Also witness what might be cinema's least likely way of getting through a roadblock in a scene that's often cited as suspenseful highlight but just seems silly and unintentionally funny.  And how does Tate chase Travis across a busy highway with Frogger-levels of speeding traffic in both directions, while hoisting a shotgun, and yet, no one seems to notice?  Not only that, but the highway was practically empty two seconds earlier.  Where did all this traffic come from?  Did a sellout performance at Plot Convenience Playhouse just let out?

OK, so COHEN AND TATE has some problems.  But Red's stylish direction and the work of the three leads do a lot of the heavy lifting that salvages Red's script occasionally dropping the ball.  The great Scheider delivers one of his best performances in one of his last big-screen leads before aging into supporting roles, TV and straight-to-video.  His Cohen is a fascinating character--in a retrospective doc on the Blu-ray, Red describes Cohen as a gangster with a "samurai code"--and one to which Scheider fully commits.  Late in the film, the cool, steely Cohen turns momentarily frantic and helpless when his hearing aid pops out, and Red says that bit was all Scheider's idea to use the hearing aid as more than just a visual prop.  Baldwin, best known at the time for the title role in 1980's MY BODYGUARD and as Animal Mother in Stanley Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET (1987), though he would go on to co-star in the cult TV series FIREFLY and its big-screen spinoff SERENITY, is a good match with Scheider and the two do a fine job of getting on one another's nerves.  But it's Cross who's really the emotional center of the film and he plays it very believably and never gets annoying, displaying a wisdom beyond his years that the young actor possessed in real life:  he was interviewed on TODAY in 1987 to plug THE BELIEVERS, and the then-nine-year-old actor cited LAST TANGO IN PARIS as his favorite Marlon Brando movie.  Cross appeared in a few films into his teen years, most notably the little-seen underground film THE BOY WHO CRIED BITCH (1991) and Alex de la Iglesia's insane PERDITA DURANGO (1997) aka DANCE WITH THE DEVIL but hasn't acted since a bit part in 2004's KINSEY.  He stayed in touch with Bates over the years, with the two eventually becoming business partners and founding the Hint Mint line of breath mints.

COHEN AND TATE writer/director Eric Red

Red reteamed with NEAR DARK director Kathryn Bigelow for her 1990 film BLUE STEEL, was one of several screenwriters who turned in a draft for the troubled ALIEN 3 (1992), and directed two horror films (1991's BODY PARTS and 1996's BAD MOON) and a Showtime movie (1996's UNDERTOW) before making news more for his personal problems than his work.  Years of battling financial troubles and personal demons culminated in a bizarre and tragic 2000 incident that involved a car crash that might've been a Red suicide attempt but inadvertently killed two bystanders instead, followed by Red getting out of his vehicle and slitting his own throat with a shard of glass.  This horrific incident essentially derailed his filmmaking career.  While his former writing partner Bigelow has gone on to Oscar glory with THE HURT LOCKER and the acclaim of last year's ZERO DARK THIRTY, Red has only made one film since the accident (2008's straight-to-DVD 100 FEET) but has become a regular fixture on the convention circuit and at midnight screenings of THE HITCHER and NEAR DARK.  It didn't take long for those Red-penned films to find an audience, but COHEN AND TATE's fan base has been gradually expanding over the last 20+ years, and Red has even recently hosted some screenings of it. The odd circumstances of his suicide attempt still follow him but he seems to have rebuilt his life and gained acceptance in cult movie circles.

COHEN AND TATE isn't an undiscovered classic by any means.  It suffers from too many lapses in logic to entirely work as a credible thriller, but fans of the actors, particularly Scheider, should definitely give it a look.  Scheider (1932-2008) had a reputation for being difficult (he bailed on THE DEER HUNTER and only agreed to do JAWS 2 to avoid a lawsuit, and during the shooting of JAWS 2, he and director Jeannot Szwarc allegedly came to blows), and his days on the A-list ended quite abruptly in the mid-1980s.  COHEN AND TATE showed that even though he may have fallen out of favor in Hollywood as a leading man, he still had that same fire and that same intensity that he brought to essential films like THE FRENCH CONNECTION, JAWS, SORCERER, and ALL THAT JAZZ.  COHEN AND TATE isn't necessarily a great movie, but it does showcase a great Roy Scheider performance.

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