Cohen & Tate was a bit of a shot in the dark viewing for me. I had a vague memory of someone (Blueprint: Review's Justin Richards I think) mentioning the film to me in the past, which is why the press release piqued my interest, but the reviews (from the few I could find) were a bit mixed. I figured I'd give it a chance though as it sounded interesting and Arrow are generally dependable for selecting titles worth watching.
I'm happy to say I'm glad I gave it a shot, but happy isn't the right word to describe Cohen & Tate. It's a pitch black thriller which opens with the brutal murder of the parents of 9-year old Travis Knight (Harley Cross). He's the only witness to a mob hit and the gangsters responsible are keen to get hold of him. So, after dispatching Travis' parents and a couple of FBI agents keeping them all 'safe', two hitmen, the titular Cohen (Roy Scheider) and Tate (Adam Baldwin), take the boy on a long drive to Houston to see their employer. His future looks bleak, but Travis doesn't give up trying to escape and, in the strained relationship between the mismatched hitmen, he sees a chance to turn them against each other to gain his freedom.
So, with a plot like that it's not a film for the faint of heart and there's some rather graphic squib-heavy violence on screen too, with a number of murders strewn throughout its running time. Due to this heavily dark leaning it won't be a film for everyone, with many likely finding it quite unpleasant. I welcomed this though. Mainstream films these days are generally too sanitised and even the darker ones tend to feel the need to add touchy-feely back stories to everyone, even the villains. Here, all you get is a brief scene where we see Cohen posting a letter with some money and a memento to a daughter/wife (you never know – we just see that it's sent to a woman with the surname Cohen). Elsewhere he's a cool customer who takes his job very seriously. Tate's character is perhaps made out to be a little too evil though, so feels rather one-dimensional. He even runs down animals for fun during the trip and pretends to take pot-shots at a baby.
Probably due to the blunt writing of his character, Baldwin feels a little over the top here and, on the other end of the spectrum, the young lead Cross is a little wooden and not always convincing. For an actor of his age he's better than most though so I can't be too harsh on him. Scheider, on the other hand, is great. I've always felt he's an underrated actor. He's in some massive films (Jaws, The French Connection, All That Jazz) but the praise for those tends to go to his director or co-stars. It's great to see him play a villain here as I'm more used to him as the every-man hero, and he suits this different role well.
Going back to the inherent nastiness of the film, as hard-edged as it is, it's not an over the top orgy of violence by any means. I mentioned how refreshing I found its unflinching nature, but I think I loved how lean it is even more so. A large amount of the film is simply made up of the three key players together in a car and the plot is kept simple and uncluttered. Even the murder Travis witnesses, which provides the motivation for the rest of the film, isn't shown and scant details of it are given. Writer/director Eric Red knows it's not important to the narrative drive, so skims over it in an opening piece of text, which almost moves too quickly off the screen to register. It's a shame his career never really lifted off into the 90's and beyond. He wrote a few classic 80's B-movies like Near Dark and The Hitcher, but nothing post-Blue Steel in 1990 is notable (at least from a critical or commercial response perspective).
Although the film has a minimalist approach to plot, that's not to say it's a slow moving character driven think-piece though. It's crammed with tense sequences, from the shocking opening, to Travis' attempted escape across a busy highway, to the brutal climax and finale. Red certainly knows how to direct a set-piece and the film is nicely shot too, with some quite artfully framed and moodily-lit images appearing throughout.
So, although I had a couple of problems with the film, these rough edges weren't enough to detract from a very effective, sparse thriller with a dark edge that might put off some, but helped set it apart for me.
Cohen and Tate is out on 5th December on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Arrow Video. I saw the DVD version and the picture and sound quality was decent. The image is clean and clear without losing any of its dark character.
You get a great selection of special features too. Here's the list:
- Audio commentary by writer/director Eric Red
- A Look Back at Cohen & Tate, a retrospective documentary featuring Eric Red, cinematographer Victor J. Kemper, editor Edward Abroms, and co-stars Kenneth McCabe and Harley Cross
- Eric Red's original storyboards for the opening farmhouse shoot-out
- Original, uncut versions of the farmhouse and oilfield shoot-outs
- Original theatrical trailer
- Extensive stills gallery
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
- FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector's booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Kim Newman
The commentary is very strong - filled with interesting production info. The documentary contains a fair bit of crossover to this, but due to the added contributors you do get some new thoughts and anecdotes. As for the two original cuts of the key shoot-outs, I can confirm that, although the differences are small, they are noticeably nastier than the versions show in the final film and that's saying a lot as the scenes were pretty brutal as they were.