Dead or Alive? It’s Mostly Dead.
DIRECTED BY GARY SHERMAN / 1986
BLU-RAY STREET DATE 10/1/19 / KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
These are the hardest reviews to write. The ones where the movie in question isn’t good, but isn’t bad enough to be interesting. It’s just sort of… meh, and I have to fill up several paragraphs writing about it. Wanted Dead or Alive is an action film from 1986, and it’s just such a movie.
Rutger Hauer plays Nick Randall, who is, the tagline of the movie tells us, “a loner, a legend, a Bounty Hunter.” He also happens to be the great-grandson (or is it great-great-grandson? I lost count of the greats.) of the character Steve McQueen played in the TV series of the same name that aired in the late 1950s. Director Gary Sherman states in the interview that accompanies the movie on Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray disk that producer Arthur M. Sarkassian bought the original draft of this movie’s screenplay (written by Michael Patrick Goodman) based solely on the title alone. He was a fan of the series.
Sarkassian apparently had never heard of the phrase caveat emptor, however. By his and Sherman’s account (they share an audio commentary on the disc), that draft was terrible. Sherman and his writing partner, Brian Taggert, had to do a page-one rewrite on it — and thanks to a looming director’s strike, they only had two weeks in which to do it.
Sherman and Taggert move the action up to modern-day (well, modern for the mid-1980s, at least) Los Angeles. Nobody mentions where or when the original draft was set, but the producer and director wanted to make a movie more in the vein of a “dark European thriller,” like Day of the Jackal, I suppose.
What they ended up with is just another generic 1980’s action thriller.
What they ended up with is just another generic 1980’s action thriller. Randall is indeed “a loner, a legend, and a Bounty Hunter,” but what he’s not is interesting. He works out of the ultimate ‘man-cave,’ a converted Ford assembly plant where he keeps his guns, work-out equipment, stereo and microwave, and he lives on an old boat, where he keeps his girlfriend (played by Thirtysomething‘s Mel Harris). He’s a former CIA agent, who now works catching bad guys for profit. He wants to save up some money so he can fix up his old boat and sail away into sunnier climes. Just a few more jobs, and then he can quit.
We all know how that typically turns out, right?
Of course we do, because we’ve seen our fair share of 80s action movies, and Wanted Dead or Alive does nothing to distinguish itself from the pack. Hauer is an actor from a completely different mold than his action movie contemporaries, but the film tries to fit him into this ‘generic action movie hero’ slot, and he just doesn’t fit.
That’s not to say he’s terrible in this movie. He’s not. He’s game for whatever Sherman wants to throw at him, he’s believable doing the fighting and the stunt work, and he has at least one big emotional moment where Hauer directs all of his rage and despair inwardly and locks it in with his typical intensity. But that intensity also works against him in places. At one point he sneaks up on his girlfriend in a manner I think is supposed to be playful, but from the look on his face you half expect him to crush her skull in his hands.
The real fly in Randall’s retirement plans’ ointment, however, is the terrorist Malak Al Rahim, played by rocker Gene Simmons. Al Rahim has come to L.A. to create an act of terror that will claim the lives of at least 30 million people. He’s delighted to learn that the CIA has hired Randall to track him down, because Randall killed his four best friends back in the day, and Al Rahim wants revenge.
I say he’s delighted, but I’m just supposing here. He scowls and he schemes, and he blows up a theater full of families (watching Rambo of all things, that great family flick!), but like Hauer, Simmons really underplays his part. The result is that Al Rahim barely registers as a villain. If he wasn’t played by someone I recognized, I doubt I’d be able to remember who the character was supposed to be from scene to scene. Simmons isn’t a good actor, by any means, but as a member of the rock group KISS, he’s proven to be a good showman. A part like an evil terrorist calls for that level of showmanship, and Simmons never unleashes it.
That I’m just now getting around to writing this review should demonstrate my enthusiasm for the film.
(A quick aside here: in the commentary track, Sherman expresses his horror that critics felt his movie was racist, due to its depictions of Middle-Easterners. He himself may not be a racist, but yeah, the movie is kinda racist. Intentions don’t matter as much as the final result.)
Anyway, Kino Lorber released Wanted Dead or Alive on Blu-Ray waaay back in 2019. That I’m just now getting around to writing this review should demonstrate my enthusiasm for the film. The disc presentation is pretty solid, though. It has the aforementioned commentary track from director Sherman and producer Sarkissian. Tracks recorded by the creatives involved in making a movie are always a big plus, even though they often have stretches where the commentators either get caught up watching their work and fall into silence, or spend their time congratulating themselves on a job well done. This one’s no exception, but those don’t happen too often here, and the inside information on the film’s production is interesting (more so than the film itself).
There’s also an interview with Sherman that runs nearly 40 minutes, and an interview with Mel Harris. Two trailers for Wanted Dead or Alive, plus a handful of trailers for related movies round out the collection.