Wanted: Dead or Alive (1986)
New York, and for those with a tight budget, Toronto, has always been the prime location for movies requiring a grey, gloomy setting. Chicago has a similarly sunless, shadowy feel, but there’s a polished, more chromium-look about it. Los Angeles has been depicted as vacuous, scuzzy, even dilapidated, but its one constant is the sunshine. While New York always seem to exist under a perpetual storm cloud, lending to its mysterious and exciting attributes, the city of angels has a warm, welcoming vibe thanks to the constant beams of UV rays. It seems impossible, but director/co-writer Gary Sherman somehow found a way to make Los Angeles look like New England. There doesn’t appear to be an ounce of sunlight whatsoever in the Rutger Hauer-starring actioner Wanted: Dead or Alive (1986). I literally thought the film took place in some state on the Eastern seaboard until I heard a news report repeatedly mention L.A.. There’s such a thing as a movie with an “L.A. feel.” Drive (2011) has it. L.A. Confidential (1997) has it. American Gigolo (1980) has it. Heat (1995) has it. Perhaps the constant grey skies are meant to mimic the laconic, somewhat laid-back attitude the ex-CIA operative turned bounty hunter Nick Randall (Hauer) takes to his new profession. If "Rainy Days and Mondays" always get you down, then dreary, overcast days make getting out of bed and going to work a real chore.
For sharp-eared Western TV aficionados, Nick Randall is indeed the grandson of Steve McQueen’s iconic Josh Randall, a Civil War veteran turned Wild West bounty hunter in the late 19th century (Wanted: Dead or Alive – 1958-1961). The film has very few Western-inspired sequences, focusing instead on a constant game of cat-and-mouse between the trifecta of Randall, terrorists, and the CIA. The plot manages to be both deceptively simple and wildly convoluted. Half the time you’re really not sure whose side the CIA is on. Maybe their own. It’s clear the organization has no qualms about sending Nick into dangerous situations as bait to apprehend a wanted criminal. For a time, though, I was convinced several key members of the Central Intelligence Agency were somehow double agents working with Malak Al Rahim (Gene Simmons, the KISS rocker nearing the end of his brief run as an 80’s movie villain), a ruthless international terrorist. The double-crosses and deception, particularly by the guys who are supposed to be “good,” occur with alarming frequency.
Though light on the Western touches, we hear a lonely harmonica as if out on the range while the credits oddly scroll upwards. A fade in to a slowly descending crane shot is a decent transition which drops us right outside a redneck bar with dual signs reading “Drink ‘til Two” and “Pistol Noon.” A song reminiscent of “Neon Slime” from Sherman’s Vice Squad (1982) has a hard rocking, honky-tonk feel, with lyrics like “Welcome to Darkness” and something about a “showdown in Hell.” Rutger Hauer is anything but unassuming, yet he quietly exits his car...well, to be honest, his huge mane of hair exits first, quickly followed by the rest of him. He enters the bar, orders a whiskey and immediately spots his target, a faux-tough, racist, asswipe cop killer named Charlie.
Charlie and his dipshit friends head over to a convenience store, where they insult the store owner and a customer before stealing money and snacks. Rutger Hauer has a magnetic screen presence, a rarity in a performer who combines a subtle, yet charismatic approach to acting. As he watches the robbery take place, he shakes his head and lets out an audible sigh, which sounds like “ehhh...” He obviously isn’t afraid of these three men and probably thinks of it more as a slightly annoying but necessary facet of the job. He takes out the two goons easily, then decides to terrify Charlie by blasting the ever-loving fuck out of this poor Vietnamese man’s store. He kindly hands the owner a hundred-dollar bill, which I doubt will cover the damage, but off he goes.
Randall drops Charlie off at the police precinct, where he’s greeted by old friend Detective Danny Quintz, played by William Russ, a talented actor perhaps best known for Boy Meets World (1993-2000) and Wiseguy (1988-1990), but also as a cast member of the infamous Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), a film that would’ve been forgotten by time had it not been for a very amusing bit by Patton Oswalt. The chemistry between Randall and Quintz is fun and breezy, with both of them busting each other’s balls.
Randall has a ridiculous number of gadgets, leading me to believe he was either paid very well by the CIA or I should consider getting into the bounty hunter racket. He’s got a car phone, specially coded garage doors, a GPS-style navigation system, an arsenal that rivals the booty Schwarzenegger snagged in Commando (1985), and a gigantic living space revealed in an impressive dolly shot. The film didn’t make a huge profit at the box office, but there are so many little touches here that point toward a rich character who could’ve been explored in subsequent sequels. Too bad.
The villainous Al Rahim arrives at the airport disguised as a rabbi. He slashes the throat of his driver, then joins his fellow terrorists. In a scene scoffed at during the film’s release but feels sadly plausible now, the group plants a bomb at the Fox Theatre, where the audience is ironically watching Rambo. A poster for Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia is also featured prominently. 138 people are killed as Malek calls the press to take credit for the attack. It’s a horrific scene, although I do have some questions. Number one, the closest Rambo movie that could’ve been playing at the time would be First Blood: Part II, but that was made in 1985. Plus, the marquee just has “Rambo” displayed with big letters. Sure, the full title of Part II is a bit unwieldy, but it’s still a strange choice and not time-appropriate. Ditto Suburbia, which was released in 1983. Plus, a doll is later found in the wreckage. I know some people are desperate for a night out, but are you seriously taking your small child to Rambo? We see the family, but the management should’ve told them to go to a more appropriate 1986 release, like Flight of the Navigator, or perhaps Milo and Otis. Just don’t let the kid know how many animals (allegedly) died during the making of it.
Groundbreaking actor Robert Guillaume (The Lion King, Benson, Sports Night, and of course, The Meteor Man) shows up as Hauer’s former boss, Philmore Walker. He luckily doesn’t cockblock Hauer, who’s just spent the night with his latest stewardess, Terry (Mel Harris, Raising Cain, K-9, thirtysomething) on his private boat. The CIA works quick as she’s somehow asked to take a shift while Walker tells Randall they need “the best” to catch Al Rahim. At least he didn’t have to track Hauer down at a cabin and interrupt his wood chopping. Even worse, Randall even mentions his intention to retire, so we know he wants a “final job.” It’s all a bit silly and cliché, but then, so is the movie. Doesn’t make the film any less fun.
The CIA works out of a Gold’s Gym, which even has a musclehead desk attendant. Talk about attention to detail, although I question how smart this is considering the health craze that began during the 80’s That damn Hanoi Jane! Somebody’s bound to inquire about a membership, or at least a free gym bag. Walker arrives and senses something is amiss when he suspects his conversations are being monitored. The sneaky white guys in charge are John Lipton (the twangy Jerry Hardin, fondly remembered as Deep Throat on The X-Files) and Hugh Gillin, whom you may remember from two Psycho sequels, most likely because of the highly amusing scene where he devours bloody ice cubes, unaware of the corpse inside the ice bin. These guys have “dirty tricks” written all over their pasty faces. They even have an inside man, Henderson (Robert Harper, Creepshow, Once Upon a Time in America, Mommie Dearest) who pretends to be a dirty agent supplying information to the terrorists. Their plan to draw Malek out because of his vendetta against Randall for killing his friends in Beirut during a 1978 mission runs into several problems, one of which is that Randall is too smart to be tailed or manipulated. At one point, he simply yanks the stick shift out of an agent’s steering wheel.
Randall’s car phone comes in handy since Walker warns him, “watch your back,” and he’s immediately involved in a carefully orchestrated fender bender to slow him down. Still, he’s able to track down some leads, first twisting the fingers of a punk in custody and then an obese gun runner named Farnsworth, played by Dennis Burkley, a very important figure from my childhood. Whether he was one half of the bumbling duo pursuing Madonna in Who’s That Girl? (1987) or threatening to sue Hulk Hogan in Suburban Commando (1991), this guy was unforgettable.
Although Nick Randall is hunting the ultimate bounty, Malek Al Rahim, whose price is 250K and a bonus of 50 thousand if brought in alive, there really isn’t a ton of bounty hunting to be found here. I’d have been much more interested in seeing the day-to-day work of Randall getting into various adventures and dealing with an assortment of colorful characters. After a decent car chase in which he fires through the windshield and fails to kick a dead body out of the passenger seat, he figures out Lipton is orchestrating the trackers and manipulating his investigation. This leads Walker to hand out some friendly advice: “Next time you decide to fuck me, Lipton, kiss me first!”
Shaking his tail once again, this time by escaping into the sewer, he makes his way back to the boat. I’m always a sucker for the mechanics of professional hit men and special agents, so seeing him realistically remove a manhole cover is satisfying. There’s a long but legitimately cool shot of a sewer pipe surrounded by darkness as Randall walks away from the camera. Nick contacts Danny and asks him to make his way to the boat dressed as Randall. Danny does so, even finding a random wig in the bathroom to match Hauer’s hair. Once onboard, he runs into Terry, again lounging on the boat. It’s a little unbelievable that Randall wouldn’t even check the boat for explosives. They end up finding his whereabouts by torturing Henderson, but still, I would think a professional like him would take a little time to sweep the boat. Alas, that doesn’t happen, and both Danny and Terry are blown up, with a ridiculously stereotypical and borderline racist cut to a terrorist in scuba gear laughing while Middle Eastern music plays. Walker trudges into his car, visibly distraught, but his grief is short-lived as Randall gets the drop on him. “Don’t you move, you fuck.” In a very good scene for both actors, Walker convinces Nick that he had nothing to do with the surveillance and Nick has a very emotional breakdown as he realizes his best friend is dead. He doesn’t mention Terry, oddly enough, leading me to believe it wasn’t as serious as he made out.
Randall lusts for revenge and relies on his newfound deceased status to find Malek Al Rahim undetected. He’s so angry he fires a shotgun at the TV just because Malek’s face appears on the news. Walker tips him off to where the terrorists have been hiding out and there’s some great attention to detail as he surveys the messy layout. He sniffs an open carton of milk and examines a freshly-squirted shaving cream can. An open carton of milk? What are they? Animals? He beats the hell out of Aziz (Eli Danker, the lanky actor from the very horny A Gnome named Gnorm (1990)) and locks him in a locker, where he shoots blindly through the doors until Aziz gives up Malek’s location. In previous scenes, we’ve found that the terrorists have no issues martyring themselves, so it’s a little ridiculous that Aziz, clearly the number two in the group, would give up information so easily. One of the other members literally blows himself up with a handful of dynamite rather than risk capture. He gets his chance later when he snatches a pistol out of a lazy CIA agent’s hand and plugs himself in the head. The entire scene plays out in a master shot, which ends up being slightly comical despite the intensity of the moment.
We get to see how metal barrels are made, which is nice, and Randall hitches a ride, Cape Fear-style, under a truck heading for the Sendrax factory, where various bad guy stuff is about to go down. The CIA is a few steps behind. Randall foils Malek’s plan (spreading chemical clouds or something) and his presumptive girlfriend tries to drive them into a chemical tank. He shoots her in the head and then, like a coward, refuses to martyr himself by steering the van out of harm’s way. Nick tracks him inside the factory while the idiots at the CIA stand around acting like they didn’t just see Malek head in that direction. Their showdown is short-lived, although there’s an implausible shot where Malek’s grenade clearly rolls right near Randall and explodes, yet he re-emerges unscathed. It’s not much of a fight as Randall beats the hell out of Al Rahim. Malek demands a soldier’s death, but Randall’s got news for him: “You’re no soldier. You’re a fly in a piece of shit.” He then shoves a grenade in his mouth. Marching him back to the authorities, he orders Lipton to give the bounty money to Danny’s widow, then says “Fuck the bonus.” Pulling the grenade key, everyone scatters and like a KISS concert gone wrong, Malek gets blown up real good. In fact, it’s admirably realistic as the explosion isn’t particularly large, but likely what would happen if a real grenade blew up in someone’s mouth. Randall wanders off and plays the harmonica the late Terry gave him.
Speaking of Terry, I’m reminded of one of my favorite obscure quotes from The Simpsons. Abe “Grandpa” Simpson yells at the punk teen in the movie theatre box office that, “The romantic subplot felt tacked on!” Truly, this quote can be applied here. Boy, oh boy, is Mel Harris wasted here. It’s standard practice to include a love interest in an action film. Hell, most films have them because movie watching is a voyeuristic endeavor and the promise of seeing attractive people get it on is appealing to our baser instincts. The big difference here is that Terry’s presence in the movie has nothing to do with the plot. Usually, the wife or girlfriend of the badass hero gets kidnapped or has to do something important to ensure victory. For Wanted: Dead or Alive, she gives him a harmonica, hangs out on his boat, and gets blown up. What’s hilarious is that the natural progression would be for Randall to seek vengeance for her death. Instead, he mainly focuses on his dear friend, Danny, while she’s forgotten almost immediately. Terry’s merely there to give the potential female audience members a relationship to root for.
The late Rutger Hauer bears a striking resemblance to many other action heroes of the 1980’s, including The Exterminator’s Robert Ginty, Final Score’s Christopher Mitchum, I Come in Peace’s Dolph Lundgren, and even Miami Vice’s Don Johnson. Though Johnson has grown into an outstanding character actor, I never felt that Hauer belonged in the B or C-list grouping of the macho hombres who graced the screen throughout the decade of excess. Hollywood came calling after his excellent collaborations with Paul Verhoeven on such films as Soldier of Orange (1977) and Turkish Delight (1973), Let’s not forget that a year before his iconic turn in Blade Runner (1982), Sylvester Stallone was vindictively jealous of Hauer’s superior performance in Nighthawks (1981) and worked to remove as much of it as possible from the finished film. Rutger Hauer was too good of an actor to be lumped in with the likes of Seagal, Van Damme, or Norris. It’s unfortunate that he worked consistently but never really broke through as a leading man, although he headlined plenty of films, including The Osterman Weekend (1983), Flesh+Blood (1985), The Hitcher (1986), Ladyhawke (1985), the insanely fun Blind Fury (1989), before settling into a career mostly playing villains. He would get to play a hero-of-sorts in the very bloody Hobo with a Shotgun (2011). I’ve always been impressed with his handling of an American accent. He’s got a European look about him, but unlike his other non-American contemporaries, particularly Van Damme, he spoke with little to no indication that English wasn’t his first language.
While Nick gets to run around and shoot people, Gene Simmons barely has anything to do. He speaks very little dialogue and the only direction he got appears to have been “glower a lot and look menacing.” He’s got a great look, I’ll give him that, but Simmons is an energetic performer. His villain turn in Runaway (1984) is much more fun to watch. The bad guys come off as cardboard cutouts with zero redeeming qualities and barely anything resembling human behavior. It’s only mildly offensive since most depictions of foreign villains in the 80’s were like this, so it feels par for the course.
The script was written by Sherman, Michael Patrick Goodman, and Brian Taggert, who would work with Sherman again on Poltergeist III (1988). Taggert has some pretty wild credits, including George P. Cosmatos’ Of Unknown Origin (1983), V (1984), the TV version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1991) starring the Redgrave sisters, and Visiting Hours (1982), which has one of the more memorable VHS covers of all time. There are some good one-liners scattered throughout and a delightful quirkiness to many scenes, with the dialogue and main characters being much smarter than they need to be. Even a throwaway scene with Nick and Terry where she explains the origin of the harmonica gift is well-written. A big surprise is Robert Guillaume’s survival by the end of the film. He felt like the old mentor who’d bite the bullet in order to save the hero. Instead, he simply keeps Nick informed and rails against his obviously dirty co-workers. Really, the only main issue is the film may simply be overwritten, with so many characters to juggle that it becomes irritatingly confusing.
Gary Sherman is one of the finest B-movie directors ever thanks to Death Line/Raw Meat (1972), Dead & Buried (1981), and Vice Squad (1982), although this feels like the last hurrah before his career in feature filmmaking got derailed by the ambitious disaster Poltergeist III (1988) and then the box office disappointment of Lisa (1989). His slick direction, coupled with Hauer’s easygoing screen charm, help make Wanted: Dead or Alive an enjoyably familiar chance to see bad guys get killed and establishment big wigs find out they can’t control everything.