From the Mists of Time: “Wanted Dead or Alive”

January 14, 2014


Here’s a strange little number. It’s a movie that could just as easily fit in the “Criminally Overlooked” category as “From the Mists of Time,” since it’s actually quite a good movie, which never garnered the cult status it deserved. Even now I’m hesitant to wholeheartedly endorse it, since it’s the product of a more innocent time, which now takes on the dimension of a nightmare. Still, there’s no getting around the fact it’s a solidly-built thriller with more than ample amounts of ‘80s cheese, all served atop a hearty helping of Rutger Hauer. Okay, that metaphor went wrong, but you get the point: Rutger Hauer, sawed-off shotgun, terrorists in L.A. Need I say more? Of course not, but I will…

So, 1987’s Wanted Dead or Alive is supposedly a film sequel to the 1958 series which starred Steve McQueen, but outside of a shared last name–Randall–and some lip-service this really isn’t a thing. This Randall is former CIA operative turned professional bounty hunter Nick Randall, and unlike Dog the Bounty Hunter, he’s armed with more than racial epithets and pepper-spray. No, Nick likes to tote around a sawed-off, stockless pump-shotgun (itself a nod to McQueen’s cut-down Winchester rifle) which is inexplicably fitted with a laser sight–because when you’re doing precision shooting, a short-barreled shotgun is the first weapon you grab for.


Please don’t do the William Tell trick…

As the movie begins, Randall is just minding his own business, apprehending a cop-killer (and by “apprehending” I mean blasting a Vietnamese grocery store until the guy gives up), and handing him over to his buddy LAPD Detective Jerry Quintz (William Russ at the apex of his 1980s William Rustiness), when something unusual happens. Gene Simmons arrives in LA dressed as Hasidic Jew. Now, maybe that’s not weird in real life—Simmons might actually do that, I don’t know—but in this film he plays Yemeni terrorist Malak Al Rahim, and he wastes no time getting up to evil.

First, Rahim blows up a movie theater—pointedly showing Rambo: First Blood Part 2—and announces his presence to the news.  This brings Randall’s old CIA colleagues a-calling, since Randall once worked a mission to kill Rahim and some of his terrorist buddies. Only problem is, Randall never got Rahim. Now the CIA offers him a $250,000 bounty (plus $50,000 on top if Rahim is delivered alive) to hunt him down within a week. Of course it’s not as simple as that, as they’re actually using Randall as bait to draw Rahim out.

...a plan that simply cannot backfire in any way.

…a plan that simply cannot backfire in any way.

The movie is a tense cat-and-mouse game that’s a lot smarter than an ‘80s B-movie has the right to be. The various sides all work their various angles, while Rahim ups the ante, setting off dozens of car bombs in L.A. as a brutal diversion from his final scheme—setting off a chain reaction at a chemical plant to create a toxic cloud over the greater Los Angeles area (so you can see why the movie is a tad more queasy-making today than it was in 1987).

But putting aside the entirely-plausible nightmare scenario it posits, we have to acknowledge the movie’s B-movie genre charms. To wit:

* Rutger Hauer: In the 1980s, Hauer was the eminent terrifying force of nature. He’d already been Roy Batty and The Hitcher, and even playing a good guy he brings with him the uncanny ability to instill sheer terror. It helps that all of his scenes look as if he’s tripping balls, grinning tauntingly for no reason, ice-blue eyes staring into middle distance as if seeing obscure Dutch demons that have pursued him form The Netherlands.

Just another weekend at the Hauer household...

Any given weekend for Rutger Hauer…

* Rutger Hauer’s hair: Okay, don’t get your hopes up—it’s not Peter Weller-caliber hair (what force in all of Cristendom could compare with that?). Still, he rocks an amazing mullet. It’s the kind of hair that says, “This dude carries a sawed-off shotgun everywhere. And also he will taunt you like a cat with an errant cockroach before he ends you. And then eats your soul.” This hair says that.

* William Russ’s hair: Not as epic, but…man, check out that pompadour. He sported it in Miami Vice, Crime Story, Wiseguy, and Manhunter. That hair…I’m pretty sure it created global warming.

He's firing two machine guns, but all you can look at is the pompadour...

He’s firing two machine guns, but all you can look at is the pompadour…

* The supporting players: Look at who we have: Gerry Hardin, Mel Harris (before she got all bourgeois-annoying in Thirtysomething), the aforementioned Russ, and Robert Guillaume as Randall’s oldest buddy in the CIA. Guillaume especially reminds us why he was such a great actor in the ‘70s and ‘80s and is superb in a rare dramatic role. His delivery of the line, “Lipton, the next time you decide to fuck me, kiss me first” is a classic.

* Randall’s pad: Think Rutger Hauer lives in an apartment  tastefully-appointed with IKEA furniture? Of course not. This place is pretty much what a 15 year-old action movie buff imagines a cool grown pad to be: a warehouse loft with motorcycles, a computer setup, fitness equipment, a massive arsenal, and, oh yeah, a freaking gun range! How Randall hasn’t does of lead poisoning is anyone’s guess. From the perspective of adulthood, we see this as less “cool guy” and more “anti-social weirdo who probably has an FBI file.” Still, in ‘80s movies this was what cool guys did (it was a different time, kids).

Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person who doesn't have a gunshelf in his living room.

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who doesn’t have a gunshelf in his living room.

* Gene Simmons: the KISS frontman makes a surprisingly-good bad guy, glowering malevolently and never losing his cool. And in this film, at least, he settles on a gender. What’s more disturbing is how entirely realistic the plan is–it should be since it was based on an actual disaster that occurred in Bhopal India. No stolen nukes, dirty bombs or the like. If the CIA didn’t screen this movie after 9/11 they certainly should have.

* Randall’s confrontation with Rahim: It’s a doozy, and it’s capped off with a great coda. I won’t ruin it.

So, that’s Wanted Dead or Alive. It’s better than it has any right to be and better than history has treated it.   

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