Butch And Sundance: The Early Days
Shout! Factory // 1979 // 115 Minutes // Rated PG
Shout! Factory // 1981 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // February 1st, 2011
"Come on, are we going to rob something or not?"
From Shout! Factory comes a double feature of forgotten thunder. Not one but two, count 'em, two westerns for the price of one.
Butch and Sundance: The Early Days has Tom Berenger (Sniper) and William Katt (House) taking on the roles made famous in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This prequel, directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night), tells how the two idiosyncratic outlaws first got together and made a name for themselves. Along the way, they struggle to avoid capture by U.S. Marshall Joe Le Flores (Peter Weller, Robocop) and dim-witted killer O.C. Hanks (Brian Dennehy, First Blood).
The second part of this double feature is Death Hunt, based on the sensational true story of Canadian trapper Albert Johnson (Charles Bronson, Once Upon A Time In The West), who gets on the bad side of a savage group of dog fighters after rescuing a dying canine from their clutches. A visit to his house for retribution ends badly for the dog fighters, as Johnson dispatches one of them with a bullet to the brain. They flee to their native village and seek his arrest by Sgt. Edgar Milland (Lee Marvin, The Dirty Dozen) of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He reluctantly leads the dog fighters back to Johnson. An attempt to mediate the chaos goes south when the dog fighters open fire on Johnson. This turns out to be a huge mistake, as Johnson is a former Central Intelligence badass for the U.S. government. He's also super pissed about the fact they killed his dog. And did I mention he's Charles Bronson?
I'm going to speak bluntly when I say this set absolutely rocks. While neither film is a flawless example of American action/westerns at work, both films leave a very strong mark on the viewer, albeit in completely different ways.
Butch and Sundance: The Early Years surprised the hell out of me. It's one of those sequels you kind of forget exists, sort of like Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights or that Alan Arkin Pink Panther movie (Inspector Clouseau). After all, how good can Berenger and Katt be when trying to reprise Robert Redford and Paul Newman's most iconic roles? You'd be surprised. Both actors acquit themselves splendidly in the roles, picking up the mannerisms and cadence of the Newman and Redford's Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid while also making the roles entirely their own. Berenger especially carries the film as Cassidy, showing off pitch perfect comic timing and an off-kilter verbiage that's just as endearing as Newman's take on the character. Katt emits a cool intensity that never quite matches the effortless badass Redford could muster, but does a good job nonetheless. They're well matched with Brian Dennehy, who is both funny and a little scary as the dim-witted outlaw O.C., but I'm ashamed to say Peter Weller's imposing grit is wasted in a villain role that never goes anywhere.
The script is partially to blame. While Butch and Sundance's banter, action, and motivations feel consistent with the original, the film has many tangents and leaves many subplots thoroughly unexplored. These include Weller's pursuing Marshall, who appears at the beginning and end of the film without ever actually facing down our outlaw heroes. Another wasted storyline explores Cassidy's secret family life. Said domestic scenes, while effectively melancholy, are never quite pushed to the full dramatic potential. I blame Richard Lester, who seems more content directing over-elaborate slapstick comedy sequences than he does scenes of familial strife involving two would-be outlaws. Because of short comings like these, the prequel never quite strikes the delicate balance between drama and comedy that made Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid so memorable. Not only that, but Lester lacks George Roy Hill's sense of style, striking some fine visual compositions (courtesy of cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs) without any real sense of ambition or meaning.
Death Hunt is the superior film of the set, but isn't half as a fun as Butch and Sundance. Then again, it isn't supposed to be: Death Hunt is a hugely nihilistic meditation on man's savagery. Set on the fringes of rural Canada, it is First Blood's spiritual sequel, one that takes a generic action set-up into some truly dark moral territories. Directed by Peter R. Hunt (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), the meat of the film takes place across snow-capped mountains, where Marvin's surly lawman attempts to control the unfolding chaos of undisciplined, bloodthirsty savages trying to hunt and kill Bronson, only to find their bullets are more likely to hit each other than the killer-on-the-loose.
While the film features some excellent supporting work from Carl Weathers (Predator) and Angie Dickinson (Dressed To Kill), it truly belongs to Marvin and Brosnon. In the one scene they share, the seasoned action stars (past the age of 60) approach each other with equal amounts of respect and caution, communicating their apprehension and understanding more with weary eyes and slow movement than simply tense dialogue. The relationship established resonates through the rest of the picture, though they never meet again. When Milland is pressed by his partner as to why he's so eager to kill Johnson, Milland can only say, "He deserves me." Milland and Johnson are well aware they're not chasing each other -- they're chasing themselves.
Despite some slick action scenes layering the hard-boiled acting and fairly dense script, the film has its missteps, namely an inconsistent score and some incredibly stereotypical cast of supporting characters. Still, even these aren't enough to hold Death Hunt back as an action film that deserves to be rediscovered, though on very different terms than the light and lethargically paced Butch and Sundance: The Early Years. I wouldn't suggest them as my ideal double feature, but they're two damn fine films in their own right.
Shout! gives both films solid, if utilitarian, DVD treatments. Both films sport impressive, sharp transfers, though Butch and Sundance is substantially grainer than relatively clean Death Hunt. Stereo sound mixes are pretty much neck and neck -- not flashy or memorable, but clear enough to do the job. No extras are included, aside from vintage trailers.
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Scales of Justice, Butch And Sundance: The Early Days
Perp Profile, Butch And Sundance: The Early Days
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Distinguishing Marks, Butch And Sundance: The Early Days
Scales of Justice, Death Hunt
Perp Profile, Death Hunt
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Distinguishing Marks, Death Hunt
* IMDb: Butch and Sundance: The Early Days
* IMDb: Death Hunt