Cohen & Tate, 1988.
Directed by Eric Red.
Starring Roy Scheider, Adam Baldwin, Harley Cross, Suzanne Savoy, Cooper Huckabee and Kenneth McCabe.
Two hitmen kidnap a young boy to take back to their mob bosses for questioning about a murder but the boy plays the mismatched pair off against each other.
Coming from the golden era of the buddy road movie, 1988s Cohen & Tate does the mismatched couple thing but in a slightly different way, playing with the conventions of the style and proving itself to be a rather unique and underrated gem. Upon its original release the film only made around $65,000 at the US box office but thanks to Arrow Video it will hopefully perform a little better now we are far enough away from the context of the more traditional buddy movies like Lethal Weapon, Red Heat and Tango & Cash that were more successful at the time.
In the movie, the Knight family are in witness protection due to nine-year-old Travis (Harley Cross – The Fly II) witnessing a mob killing. Having found out where the family are hiding the mob send in hitmen Mr. Cohen (Roy Scheider – Jaws/52 Pick-Up) and Mr. Tate (Adam Baldwin – Full Metal Jacket) to kill mum and dad and drive young Travis the 355 miles back to Houston so he can be questioned about what he knows, but once Travis is in the car he discovers that the older, more experienced Cohen is a little calmer and easier to handle than the hot-headed Tate, who wants to kill the boy. It comes to light that Cohen and Tate have never worked together before and so Travis begins playing mind games with the two in the hope that their distrust of each other works in his favour and he can escape before they reach Houston.
Very much turning the more conventional buddy road movie on its head, Cohen & Tate is a dialogue-led film that came out amidst a plethora of action movies, which may go some way to explaining why it performed poorly and never quite fitted it with what was happening at the time. Not that there isn’t action, because when this movie gets violent it goes straight for the jugular (literally in one scene) and has no qualms about splattering the red stuff about but it is what the film doesn’t show you that is the most compelling. We never get to see the murder that Travis has witnessed, nor do we get to see the Knight family testifying or being sent to live outside of the city and we don’t get to see anything of Cohen or Tate until they show up at the Knight’s safe house, which means that we have to rely on the script to fill us in on all the details and the actors to convince us of who these characters are.
And they do (mostly), as Roy Scheider, at this point in his career long past his 1970s peak and having to go down the Charles Bronson route of being a big name in low-budget crime/exploitation thrillers, is magnificent as Cohen, the experienced old-hand who knows how the assassin’s lifestyle goes and just wants to get the job done. Scheider’s ash-blonde hair colour and pale make-up go toward enhancing Cohen’s cold delivery and chilling professionalism, and Scheider himself does an amazing job of making Cohen more relatable as the film goes on despite his seemingly uncaring persona. Adam Baldwin, on the other hand, makes Tate a thoroughly unlikeable character from the start and one who isn’t as complex as Cohen, although as the story goes on and Tate becomes more unhinged he drops a few lines that perhaps could explain why he is the way he is if we were to dig a little deeper. Baldwin himself is fine and, despite veering very close to impersonating Bill Paxton in Near Dark, he keeps the madness in check enough throughout to make his final confrontation with Cohen more sinister than perhaps was expected. The only downer in the performances comes from young Harley Cross who is just plain irritating and seems to struggle keeping one accent for whole sentences. Granted, he is young and is playing a character with a lot to cope with but his screeching and strange southern US drawl that only appears every half-a-dozen lines just grates and, at certain times, makes you wish Tate would do what he keeps threatening to do.
Released in a dual-format package, the film looks great on Blu-ray despite the opening 10 minutes – which is set in daylight – being quite grainy. However, once the action moves to the car journey the film is all set at night and the contrast of dark backgrounds and small amounts of light in the car looks fantastic, often giving a noir-ish feel to some of the scenes. The emotional score by Bill Conti is simple but effective, and very similar to his themes used in Sylvester Stallone’s Lock Up a year later but as Cohen & Tate came first then this one should get the bigger credit, and with a 20-minute ‘making of’ documentary, audio commentary by writer/director Eric Red and the alternate opening and closing scenes in all their uncut glory then this is as complete a package as you could hope for. Overall, Cohen & Tate is a concise and tight little movie that features action, violence, dark humour and a wonderfully understated performance from Roy Scheider that should please most fans of crime thrillers by offering up something a little different than what you may expect and being all the more satisfying because of it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★