The Deadly Trackers

Director: Barry Shear
Richard Harris, Rod Taylor, Al Lettieri

What ingredients do you need for a revenge movie? Well, I have seen more than my share of revenge movies over the years, so I think I have a good idea of the prime ingredients a revenge movie simply has to do well enough in order for the movie as a whole to succeed. One obvious ingredient that simply needs to be good enough are the bad guy, or bad guys, in the movie. It simply would not do if the bad guy, say, had done a wrong against the protagonist quite by accident. A villain in a revenge movie has to be a nasty and/or repulsive enough piece of work that we in the audience, even the most liberal of us, hope greatly that this villain will be given a great deal of punishment before the end credits start rolling on the screen. Another ingredient that has to be well crafted before throwing it into the pot is the setting, as well as the general set up. A revenge movie filmmaker has to make the protagonist's ambition of revenge understandable. If there are, say, competent law enforcers on the beat in the setting of the movie's story, then the protagonist's quest for revenge may come across as quite wrong-headed even for the most bloodthirsty members of the audience. A third ingredient that I also think has to be well crafted in a revenge movie is the method or methods that the protagonist uses in order to fulfil his or her quest for revenge. I think that whatever the protagonist decides to do, it has to be something that's on a plausible level, so we in the audience can buy the actual revenge as much as what was set up earlier in the movie. If it's a method that slowly but painfully enacts some kind of hurt against the antagonist or antagonists, I say that's all the better.

There is another ingredient that I think any good revenge movie needs, and needs to be as well crafted as those other ingredients I mentioned in the previous paragraph. And that ingredient happens to be a protagonist that we can believe in his or her various actions. Certainly, the writing of this character in the screenplay plays a big part towards whether we buy the character of not. But I also believe that the casting of the character also plays a big part. Let me give you an example with one of the ultimate revenge films out there, Death Wish. More likely than not you've seen this movie, and probably feel that Charles Bronson gave a very effective performance in the role of the lead character seeking revenge. But what you may not know is that Bronson wasn't the first choice for the role. For example, Henry Fonda was offered the part, but turned it down flat because he found the whole project "repulsive". Actually, seeing how Fonda was so effective playing a dark character in Once Upon A Time In The West, there was a good chance he could have done well in Death Wish. But before Fonda was approached, another actor was considered for the role. And that actor happened to be Jack Lemmon. Now, Lemmon was definitely a talented actor, but I have to admit that I kind of find it hard to picture him as a guy losing his marbles and freely shooting muggers dead. But I also have to admit that the idea of him in the role strikes me as somewhat amusing, so much so that I like to picture him in the sequels, doing stuff ranging from killing "The Giggler" in Death Wish 3 to saying lines such as "It's those damn drugs!" and "I was making a sandwich" in Death Wish 4.

With what I have discussed in the two above paragraphs, you have more likely than not concluded two things about the movie I'm reviewing here, The Deadly Trackers. That being that The Deadly Trackersthe movie not only concerns a revenge-themed plot, but that the actor cast as the vengeance-seeking protagonist struck me as somewhat bizarre casting. Who is cast as the protagonist? None other than Irish actor Richard Harris. I remember thinking, "Richard Harris?!?" when I first stumbled upon the movie and read the plot synopsis on the back of the video box, which promised a tale of bloody revenge. But then I remembered another case of offbeat casting for a revenge tale - Michael Caine in Harry Brown. That was a good movie. And remembering that Harris proved his talents in many movies during his life, I decided to give him a chance with this movie. In The Deadly Trackers, Harris (A Man Called Horse) plays Sean Kilpatrick, a sheriff in a small American town back when the west was wild. Despite being a sheriff, Kilpatrick is not a violent man, probably due to the fact he has a loving wife and young son in his life. But Kilpatrick's happy and peaceful life is shattered one day when outlaw Frank Brand (Taylor, The Time Machine) and his gang ride into town with the intent to rob the local bank. While Kilpatrick and the local townspeople try their best to capture Brand and his gang once they are discovered, Brand and his gang not only get away, in the process they kill Kilpatrick's wife and son. Grieving and enraged, Kilpatrick rides off and follows Brand and his gang into Mexico with the intent to kill them all. But during his travels, Kilpatrick runs into Gutierrez (Lettieri, McQ), a Mexican sheriff who is also after Brand. But Gutierrez wants to capture Brand by the book, and attempts several times along the way to stop Kilpatrick from breaking Mexican law by trying to kill Brand. In short notice, Kilpatrick becomes not only a pursuer, but also one being pursued.

Before I go any further with writing about The Deadly Trackers, I will admit that in the past I have seen Richard Harris in some other "macho" movies such as The Guns Of Navarone and The Wild Geese. Heck, I even reviewed one such "macho" Harris movie in the past (99 And 44/100% Dead). But despite multiple casting agents seeing him appropriate for these movies, I found it all hard to swallow. When I picture Richard Harris, I instantly picture him as a cuddly grandfather-like figure, not an ass kicker. However, I will say that in this particular "macho" movie, Harris manages to come across as very credible. A large part of this is due to the way his character has been written. We learn that Sean Kilpatrick, before his wife and son were killed, was a pacifist of sorts; when Frank Brand and his gang attempt to rob his town's bank, for example, he initially tries to capture them without using firearms. When all his peaceful efforts fail and his family is killed, Kilpatrick is for a long time simply stunned and can't comprehend the tragedy that has just happened to him. Harris expectedly does well with calmer moments like these, but he also manages to handle things well when Kilpatrick sees red and starts gunning for vengeance, thanks to the screenplay. The screenplay (by Lukas Heller of Monte Walsh, from a story from Samuel Fuller) wisely does not make Kilpatrick an expert gunslinger. He does show some smarts from time to time (his escape from jail, for instance), but his quest for vengeance is somewhat slow and involves a lot of hard work - and his plans don't always go the way that he hoped. Indeed, there is often a feeling that this man is way out of his league and might not succeed with his plans for vengeance - or even survive at all. Clearly this character has some major weaknesses, and the casting of Harris instead of your typical tough guy actor works for this particular movie vengeance-seeking cowboy. Harris makes sure to emphasize his character's weaknesses while at the same time expertly - and believably - showing a growing obsession in hunting down his loved ones' killers.

While I'm speaking of the growing obsession that Kilpatrick has in tracking down and killing the bad guys, I'd like to bring up an interesting observation I found with this angle of the movie. Namely, that as the movie goes on, Kilpatrick's obsession grows so much that he starts making desperate actions that slowly start to make him lose sympathy with the audience. Indeed, the character of Mexican sheriff Gutierrez, while initially a thorn in the side of Kilpatrick (and the audience), eventually starts to win the audience over with his repeated belief in law and order. A big reason for that is Al Lettieri's good performance, that finds the right tone by making palatable a character who while might having some sympathy for Kilpatrick's quest for vengeance, is determined all the same to enforce Mexican law. Lettieri's skilled acting helps make up for some weakness in the writing of his character (for example, it's never explained why he is hunting down Frank Brand and his gang all alone.) As it turns out, the characters of Frank Brand and his gang also suffer from some inadequate writing. While actor Rod Taylor gives an okay performance in an atypical bad guy role, showing a believably cool and collected mind under pressure, I didn't think that there were quite enough scenes devoted to him to make his character a strong enough villain. Still, he comes off a lot better than the actors playing his character's henchmen. The henchmen are played by William Smith (Seven), Neville Brand (Psychic Killer), and Paul Benjamin (Deadly Force), and while all three actors do their best, we don't learn very much that would differentiate their characters from each other. One has a piece of rail from a railway for a hand, another is an African-American intellectual, but that's pretty much all we learn about these louts.

There are some other problems with the screenplay. There are a few times when the movie abruptly jumps ahead from one scene to another seemingly missing linking footage that would make the transitions easier to follow. Still, the story has some definite strengths, one of them being a number of vignettes (the three card Monte sequence, for example) that while not adding much (if anything) to the story, do add some definite color, and keep things lively between the action sequences. The action sequences, as you may have guessed from that last sentence, are fairly well done, generating some excitement and at times sporting some pretty bloody and/or brutal violence that severely strains the PG rating the MPAA awarded the movie. As for the rest of the direction of the movie, there are some problems with it. In the hands of director Barry Shear (who replaced Samuel Fuller early in production), the movie does have an undercurrent of toughness that is necessary for this particular kind of cinematic story. But it also has an undercurrent of cheapness at times. Part of this comes from the weak musical score, which seems at times more suited for a television show than a theatrical movie. In fact, other parts of the direction also feel like they belong in television. Shear shoots most of the action fairly close up and gives the audience few "wide" looks. Most of the locations (the movie was shot in Mexico) look drab and plain. (In fact, the movie did start production in Spain, but was moved to Mexico for reasons I could not determine.) These problems with the direction, as well as the other problems I brought up earlier, hold The Deadly Trackers back from being a top notch revenge western. All the same, I do think there is enough here to satisfy your average western fan, whether or not they think before watching the movie that the idea of Richard Harris kicking ass to be amusing.

(Posted June 29, 2019)

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See also: A Bullet For Sandoval, Outlaw Force, The Stranger