Robert Duvall and Treat Williams Play a Most Contrived Game of Cat & Mouse.
DIRECTED BY ROGER SPOTTISWOODE/1981
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: OCTOBER 26, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
As everyone who watched season one of Marvel’s Loki knows, on November 24, 1971, an unidentified man hijacked a commercial Boeing 727 en route. Somewhere between Portland and Seattle, the man took the loot, a cool $200,000, and parachuted out of the plane’s cargo bay, never to be heard from again. The media dubbed the high-stakes robber “D.B. Cooper”, a botching of his chosen pseudonym, “Dan Cooper”. So slick was Cooper that no one onboard was injured or killed.
In 2016, after forty-five years of getting nowhere, the FBI gave up the ghost and closed the case. This leaves the crime of D.B. Cooper with the notoriety of being the only unsolved skyjacking incident in U.S. history. That’s the gist of the real story. It’s not a bad one, either. It’s the kind of bold caper that sends imaginations reeling… Who the heck was D.B. Cooper? What made him do it?? How exactly did he get away with it??? All good questions, and ideal fodder for a speculative movie that could effectively dramatize the man’s plight, struggles, plan, and its flawless execution.
Instead, we got 1981’s The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, a cornball small-town chase film that speculates what might’ve happened after Cooper hit the ground, had Robert Duvall been on the case. Duvall plays Bill Gruen, a hard-ass former Army drill sergeant turned insurance investigator. Gruen has figured out that Cooper simply must be Jim Meade (Treat Williams), who he butted heads with back in basic. And he’s right. Meade, it turns out, pulled the heist out of desperation to save his marriage to the attractive and self-assured Hannah, played by Kathryn Harrold. Hannah reluctantly joins him in his efforts to shake off his pursuers and make a final escape to Mexico. Before long, the whole ordeal is a big hot turn-on for her. Mission accomplished, Meade? But in the meantime, Gruen, a persistent s.o.b. If there ever was one, is always a short step behind them.
In relegating the crazy reality of the story to a quick pre-opening titles bit, The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper buries its own lead. What follows Meade’s landing is ninety-eight minutes of dusty, dippy chase sequences, near misses, and close calls. Being that it all takes place on country roads in the very rural Pacific Northwest, the film plays out like a drive-in shitkicker movie- far more Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry than Catch Me If You Can. It’s that un-swept, un-dressed 1970s/early 1980s type of country movie where the lack of aesthetic is the aesthetic.
A Waylon Jennings song called “Shine” plays prominently over certain segments; the pursuit involves whitewater rafting, a series of swiped vehicles, plenty of paying people off, and culminates with Gruen getting his stolen airplane’s wheel caught in the rammed-in roof of the stolen car Meade is driving. It feels like The Dukes of Hazard with a bigger budget; the kind of nonsense that could play out in any number of dopey programmers of the era. The problem is that this one isn’t particularly fun- though goodness knows it’s trying. It’s also trying to be a respectable movie, but no dice there.
The good news is that those who’ve been in pursuit of a decent Blu-ray edition of The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, here it is! From Kino Lorber Studio Classics, this release lands with a decent stash of special features, headed up by a new audio commentary by the film’s screenwriter, Jeffrey Alan Fiskin, who’s in discussion with film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer. They get into how this was such a troubled production, struggling with its tone, its plot, and having to replace initial director John Frankenheimer (The Train) with last-minute hire Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies). Fiskin and Kremer, oddly, seem to wish they were watching the screenwriter’s other, better 1981 movie, Cutter’s Way. They talk about that one an awful lot. Other extras include three TV spots and the theatrical trailer, as well as optional English subtitles.
The makers of The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper opted for a situation in which they could tell any story they wanted to shoot. They had the remarkable talent of Robert Duvall, Treat Williams, and Kathryn Harrold. (The poor actors are trapped in this thing). And somehow, they end up with this bit of immediately forgettable fluff. The real D.B. Cooper may’ve escaped justice (although odds are high that he went splat during that jump from the 727), but The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper most assuredly did not. As a promotion for the ignored movie, Universal Studios even offered a $1 million-dollar reward for information leading to the capture of the real D.B. Cooper. But, like the real investigation and the movie itself, that too went nowhere. The film does have its moments, but when the reward totaling five times more than the original stolen amount is shrugged off, you know you’ve got a dud.