ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Cohen & Tate (1988) Blu Ray & DVD (Arrow)
Harley Cross plays Travis Knight, a 9-year-old Texan boy who witnesses a mob slaying and is being held in protective custody by the FBI in a remote farmhouse with his father Jeff (Cooper Huckabee) and mother Martha (Suzanne Savoy). Mob hitmen Cohen (Roy Scheider) and Tate (Adam Baldwin) are instructed by their bosses to bring him back to Houston to find out just how much he knows, so they stage a raid on the farmhouse - bloodily gunning down his parents and all of the agents guarding them.
The pair put him in the back seat of their sedan for the lengthy night-time return journey. However, they overhear a broadcast on the radio indicating that the boy’s father managed to survive his injuries and has provided information to the police about the two hitmen. Moreover, Travis is proving to be quite a resourceful little hostage: not only does he repeatedly try to escape from their clutches, but he soon picks up on the clear tensions between the seasoned, professional Cohen (who wants to bring the boy, alive, back to Houston) and the twitchy, sociopathic Tate (who wants him dead as he sees him as being too big a risk to keep alive) - and starts to play them off against one another.
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Cohen & Tate was the feature-length directorial debut of Eric Red, who prior to this had written The Hitcher, and co-wrote Near Dark with Kathryn Bigelow. His surname is quite apt considering that his films do, indeed, tend to be red with blood. The Hitcher and Near Dark were, at heart, gruesome variants of the road movie, placing ultraviolent acts within the desolate sprawl of North America’s highway-crisscrossed rural landscape. Cohen & Tate continues that tradition. However, while its two predecessors have become well-remembered cult classics, Cohen & Tate has largely remained forgotten until it was revived by a 2013 Shout! Factory Blu Ray release. Ironically, it’s arguably an even stronger movie than the aforementioned two.
While Red doesn’t hold back on drenching the screen with blood (mostly courtesy of Tate’s trusty shotgun), this is, at heart, a surprisingly old-fashioned thriller that relies on carefully-ratcheted tension and volatile character dynamics. The gun-blasting and car-wrecking are very much a messy periphery to the cat-and-mouse feel of the action sequences. Moreover, these sequences arise quite naturally out of the scenario and thus feel frighteningly plausible. If you were a child trapped in a car with two armed men who killed your family, would you try to make a break for it, across the freeway, by running the gauntlet of an endless wave of semi-trucks darting dangerously across your path? You might well. If you were a cop manning a roadblock and came across a car where two men were holding a child at gunpoint, would you cooperate with them and ensure they got through? Probably yes.
While slaughtering a child’s parents and placing them under constant peril is a singularly unpleasant notion, Red manages to make it work by turning the child into a canny manipulator. There’s a cold, 1970s-style approach to the respective characters of Cohen and Tate. The former is not a nice man by any means; he’s a seasoned professional killer who has no qualms about pulling the trigger on a number of people throughout the film. However, he’s the one seeing value in keeping the child alive even when it becomes clear that their chances of getting back to Houston without being caught by the law are getting ever-slimmer. While initially, it seems that it’s out of a professional duty to complete the job, it becomes clear through Scheider’s layered performance that there’s a sliver of conscience underneath the hard craggy-faced surface. On the other hand, there’s also a sliver of shrewdness that makes him begin to become aware that he’s being manipulated. Tate, on the other hand, is a sadistic brute who is lacking in any kind of remorse but also lacks the savvy to realise that he’s playing right into the boy’s hands as the latter repeatedly baits him into losing his rag. His thuggish idiocy provides the film’s only slight (however grim) humour; an example of the level of what he finds a funny joke is as follows: “What’s the last thing that goes through a bug’s mind when it hits a windshield? Its ass!”. In essence, Cohen is functionally an anti-hero and Tate a pure villain - but both have strengths and weaknesses within the fluid situation of carrying this wily kid to their designated destination. A large part of the compulsion is seeing how these well-drawn characters react to one another.
For the most part, this is an excellently crafted movie given its low budget; the cinematography, be it of the vast rolling corn vistas of the film’s opening or the expressionistic confines of the night-time car interior, is top-notch. Bill Conti’s sombre, jagged orchestral score helps to cement the film's fraught atmosphere exceptionally well. The occasional squibs, stunts and pyrotechnics are also superbly executed - and shot effectively with proximity and low angles to play up the impact. However, the studio scenes do betray their artificiality a little; shots with the actors talking while framed by night-time car windows feature what looks like a static backdrop with multicoloured lights shining through pinholes. Still, such flaws seem minor in comparison to the brutal, confined box of thrills that Cohen & Tate presents to the viewer.
It’s definitely one of the unsung gems of the ‘80s.
Runtime: 86 mins
Dir: Eric Red
Script: Eric Red
Starring: Roy Scheider, Adam Baldwin, Harley Cross, Cooper Huckabee, Suzanne Savoy, Frank Cooper Bates
Apart from a slight air of grain and softness in a few shots it looks really great. The night-time light sources bathe the film in diverse hues, while the daytime scenes bookending the film pit sky blue above the horizon and yellow-brown below in a way that feels very poetic.
The intense drama of Conti’s score comes out extremely well in the uncompressed stereo sound.
The customary Arrow booklet features an essay by Kim Newman called “Driving By Night: Eric Red on the Road”. With his usual exhaustive cine-literacy and historical knowledge, he examines Cohen & Tate’s dark, twisted place in the road movie and male buddy movie genres.
Audio commentary by Eric Red
Red’s enjoyable commentary talks extensively about his signature camera and lighting choices during the film, and also extensively about Scheider. It turns out that he was cast sometime after Adam Baldwin. Tom Noonan, John Cassavetes and Gene Hackman were all tipped for the Cohen role, but failed to make it for various reasons. Scheider was initially reluctant to take it up due to his lack of backstory or interaction with other characters, so Red wrote in a scene were he mailed a letter to an unseen loved one. The star also suggested that he lose his hearing aid during the finale. Red also admits that he regretted the technique used to create the background effects (called “Poor Man’s Process”).
We also hear that Elmore Leonard seemingly ripped off the story of Cohen & Tate for his 1989 novel Killshot - something that Red found “disgusting”. Red is a beguiling mix of modesty and pride when talking about his work here, but never less than entertaining.
A Look Back at Cohen & Tate
A retrospective featuring the director plus various others involved in the film. The discussion mainly focuses on the censorship compromises plus the three principal actors. There’s some overlap with the commentary but nonetheless enough new here to make it worth sparing the 20 minute runtime. Red admits that the long night shoots with Harley Cross went well beyond what was legal for child actors, and the latter explains how tough it was for a restless child to be stuck within the confines of a car for 8-10 hours at a time. On the other side of the coin Cross found that he got on so well with Frank Cooper Bates (who played a highway patrolman during one key sequence) that they remained friends and went into business together decades later.
Uncut and Extended Scenes
Bloodier versions of the farmhouse and oilfield shootouts that were cut to avoid an MPAA X rating.
While the footage is rather poor VHS tape stock, it’s worth a look to see the additional messy bullet hits that graced the original version. However it would (obviously) have been better if a full alternate cut of the film was available including these extended scenes, instead of them being offered separately.
Thanks Arrow for unleashing this little-seen classic on the UK public!