I had surprisingly heard very little about 1981's Death Hunt, and the reason I say surprisingly is because Death Hunt contains a cast that testosterone dreams are made of. The top billed actors are Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin, two actors that are top tier cinema tough guys with enough rugged presence to chap your lips. Loosely based on a true story, Bronson plays Albert Johnson, a lone wolf trapper in the Canadian mountains that runs into a group of dirtballs at the tail end of a vicious dog fight. Johnson quickly makes enemies with the crew of jackals when he forcibly saves the losing dog moments from it's deathbed. This pisses off the dogs owner as well as his easily influential and simple minded pals, so they try to seek vengeance by attacking Johnson at his remote cabin, where things do not go their way when one of them ends up dead.
This is where Lee Marvin's character is introduced, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sergeant named Edgar Millen. After the incident at Johnson's place, the leader of the crew and the dogs owner, Hazel (Ed Lauter), lies and says that Johnson attacked them, instead of vice versa. Knowing that Hazel and his crew are probably not being truthful, Millen still has to take Johnson in for questioning. Unfortunately, after a botched attempt at a friendly confrontation, Johnson is forced to protect his freedom, going on a defensive run from the law and taking out whomever makes the mistake of getting in his way.
Outside of Bronson and Marvin, Death Hunt has a vast role of characters that played by some great character actors of the past, many that most should recognize. I already brought up Ed Lauter as the sort of main antagonist, but there are also small roles as backup baddies played by people from Maury Chaykin to William Sanderson. Andrew Stevens also stars as the youthful and straight laced Constable Alvin Adams, who joins up with the very contrasting Millen character and his partner Sundog, who is played by Carl Weathers. Oh, did I forget to mention Carl Weathers is in this film? Yeah, can you smell the Stetson yet? Or should I say, Mandom?
With two fantastic tough guy leads, a cast of great character actors, a snowy mountain setting and you have yourself what is a perfect recipe for brooding action success. Well, maybe not perfect, but luckily, Death Hunt doesn't let down and while there is not a lot of wild action on screen, the action that is produced is exciting and worth a jump kick of joy. Death Hunt is much more of a character driven film and has the heart and soul of a western in almost everyway outside of the year in which it's set.
What really works best is how much depth the characters have and how they interact with one another. There are these little moments of honest interaction that are handled in a very subdued but telling fashion. Small things like Weather's character – while drinking heavily with Millen, Adams and an Eskimo woman of great size – reveals that his birth name is George Washington Lincoln Brown. Millen clearly has ribbed him for this presidential heavy name in the past and how it is shared with the new kid on the block is just a nice and real moment, showing that there is true history between the characters - a dynamic. These are moments that may bore some but for a film fan like myself, I find them to be fascinating.
There are many unsaid elements to Death Hunt, one of them being a strange but unsurprising bound that Millen and Johnson share with one another. They contrast each other heavily in how they live their lives, but the kind of men they are, is what makes them very similar to one another. Millen is leading the posse to find and capture Johnson, and he is the only man around with the capabilities and smarts to do it. Before these events, Millen is a grumpy, bitter and uncaring man on the surface. There are small glimpses of the real him (in front of a girlfriend of sorts, played by Angie Dickinson), but he keeps much of it bottled up (especially in front of other men), until he finds a purpose worthy of his time and skill...chasing a very dangerous wanted man through unsafe conditions.
Millen also has a strong respect for Johnson and knows he is a man that is very dangerous, but it is his job to stop him, and he is the only man with the ability to do so. There is even a moment when he says the reason he should be the one to stop Johnson is, Johnson deserves to be stopped by him, meaning, not by some shmuck with no clue or sense of respect, much like the guys that started all of this. While Johnson and Millen only meet face to face for no more than a minute, both of these men have a bound that grows out of this understanding of one another. These are two men that believe in honor and respect and while they are in opposite positions, they show consideration for those positions. That is where the film is strongest is the ungraspable bond that these 'real' men share.
Death Hunt was directed by Peter (don't call me Death) Hunt, and the film has a wonderful aesthetic with the frigid setting. I simply love the winter gear worn by the characters, with the big ass furry snow boots and hats made from some sort of dead animal. However, I watched it on instant view and the transfer they had looked a little tight and unflattering to what might otherwise look like a gorgeous film. I would love to see a proper version of the movie, that's for sure. Either way, Death Hunt is well made and thought out character study with a top notch cast and so much testosterone that I had to shave nine times during the film's runtime.