Home Video Hovel: Cohen & Tate, by Tyler Smith
I should start off by saying that, in many ways, I am the last person on the BP writers roster that should review Eric Red’s Cohen & Tate. This is a movie that I first watched on television with my brother when I was around nine years old and, to me, it was the ultimate film experience. It had suspense, humor, and fascinating characters. For years, it was the movie that I would rave about to my friends. Even as I got older and came to appreciate film as an art form, Cohen & Tate was always there, in the back of my mind, insisting on its own excellence. I would read reviews of the film- almost uniformly negative- and shake my head; surely, these people just didn’t get it.
All of this is to say that I am very biased when I think about this movie. And upon rewatching the film- newly released on Blu Ray by Shout Factory- I found myself in the middle of a struggle. It was a fight between the 31-year-old me, who has attended film school and has seen literally thousands of great and challenging films, and the 9-year-old me, who still gets swept up in the pulpy, stupid mess of it all. In the end, the more mature Tyler won, but the young Tyler got in a few key hits, and I’m probably the better for it.
There’s something to be said for simply allowing a movie to be whatever it wants to be. If it wants to be a kitchen sink drama, it would be silly to expect pratfalls. And, indeed, very few of us actually would have that expectation. And yet, when it comes to pulp thrillers, I find myself instinctively hoping for more. Perhaps the filmmakers could sneak in some social satire or some out-of-left-field characterizations; something to legitimize it in my mind.
But that would be unfair, goes the young voice in my head. It’s about two hitmen turning on each other. Why can’t I just let it be what it is?
Perhaps my reason for being torn is that the film occasionally attempts to be something more serious. In the midst of the obvious Ransom of Red Chief homage, the over-the-top performance by Adam Baldwin as Tate, the magic shotgun that can make whole cars explode, and the clunky banter between characters, Eric Red tries to turn the film into a character study. This is the last job of an aging hitman whose regret over his life choices has reached its peak. As Cohen, Roy Scheider turns in a solid performance. He is tired and irritated and often just plan sad. There are a couple of subtle moments in which we get hints of who this man really is when he’s not killing people for money. In many ways, the performance- and maybe even the character- belongs in a different film.
The general tone of the film also seems to be in conflict. There are scenes of genuine suspense- such as when the hitmen attempt to make it through a police blockade in one piece- that are handled with methodical patience. This precision reveals Cohen’s character just as much as any scenes of quiet regret, and they really work to elevate the material. That is, until Cohen and Tate make it through the blockade, stop, and blow up the police cars with a few well-aimed bullets. It is at this moment that the film reminds us that it is an 80s thriller, embracing excess and ridiculousness, and making us forget all about the well-paced tension that came before.
That more than anything is what frustrates me. The film has a very stripped-down, basic story that is interesting and efficient, while at times seeming to want to be something more. I can take pulp; I even like it from time to time. But when that pulp suggests that it’s much more than meets the eye, it is then asking me not to compare it to other films in the pulp thriller genre. It is inviting comparison with such dramatic on-the-road thrillers as One False Move or Thelma & Louise. And, in doing so, it comes up very short.
So, in the end, Cohen & Tate wound up speaking simultaneously to the 9-year-old in me, who just wants to see big guns and cars blowing up, as well as the 31-year-old, who desires more mature themes and characters. This could be considered an achievement, if it managed to balance these two attitudes, blending them together into one consistent tone. Unfortunately, the film seems schizophrenic; at war with itself. And the result is a film that is more frustrating than entertaining.