Eric Red’s entertaining directorial debut Cohen and Tate sees a pair of hitmen find their road trip across state upset by their child captive who plays them off against each other…
Eric Red’s directorial debut Cohen and Tate turns the buddy road movie upside down. Its focus is on the bad guys as they traverse the highways of Texas with their prey, a precocious nine-year-old boy who is being taken to a mafia family after witnessing a mob killing. Red, who’d won cult acclaim for his screenwriting work on Kathryn Bigelow’s stripped-down vampire horror Near Dark and Robert Harmon’s road rage thriller The Hitcher, had earned the right to develop his own project, ultimately showcasing a talent for direction in this tale of antagonist-as-protagonist.
Thanks to the sure-footing he gets from Hollywood legend Roy Scheider, Red’s suspense thriller maintains a credible presence despite the odd moment of camp courtesy of the more straightforwardly realised characters of Tate and child captive Travis. Adam Baldwin’s hothead hitman whose penchant for blood and gore constantly tries the patience of his partner, is more one-note than Scheider’s veteran Cohen. The fly in the ointment is Travis, a pleasingly resourceful pre-teen played by Harley Cross who does a commendable job despite not quite grasping the subtle changes in tone required by Red’s freewheeling screenplay.
At its best, Cohen and Tate enjoys a wonderful dynamic between two very different contract killers and a child seeking his own survival in the aftermath of his parents’ slaying. There’s no baggage to proceedings; back story is delivered through a couple of title cards after the opening credits which allows Red to kick-start the film’s dramatic momentum. This takes literal form as the trio hit the road in an almost real-time cross-state journey where the entirety of the plot plays out in a single night.
The film finds our perspective switched from the morality of the hero to the amorality of the villain. Interestingly, instead of focusing on Travis’s escape attempts, our allegiance falls on Cohen. He’s a cold, calculated individual who is introduced as the catalyst to several deaths including those of the child’s parents, but amidst the steely exterior he is a man who sticks to his own strict code of ethics, as sadistic as they may be, and who gets the job done. But he suffers from the sorts of physical and emotional flaws that make him less robotic killer, more survivor of a criminal underworld which is perhaps gearing up to put the old man out to pasture.
Red finds something admirable in Cohen, which is an unusual but not unappealing quality of the film. This is in part thanks to Scheider’s terrific performance which eschews physical extravagance in favour of quiet contemplation; a wily, time-served intelligence over brawn. This is countered by Baldwin’s muscular bully; his bad-boy sensibilities more clearly drawn and thus less interesting. Yet, it’s fun to see the nine-year-old have a maturity beyond that of his meathead captor and the ensuing interaction between the three as Travis tries to antagonise the mobsters into fighting between themselves.
Despite the film’s simplistic set-up, and Red’s lifeless action sequences, the writer-director injects enough subtext to elevate the film’s suspense-thriller aesthetics. The fact Scheider’s villain needs a hearing aid is a nice touch, adding an underlying vulnerability, but there’s a subtle yet pivotal scene where, having realised his fate may be terminal once this current contract is complete, he mails money and a personal trinket in a pre-addressed envelope to a female recipient. We don’t know who the woman is, and we never find out. But it alludes to a conscience he evidently has; a veil of humanity (and normalcy) in a man who has otherwise devoted himself to a life of crime. Curiously, Red finds another dimension to the story through the unlikely camaraderie Cohen and Travis strike up; it’s a relationship that could never be called “friendship” but that’s a close approximation within the context of this subversive thriller.
Written by Dan Stephens
Top 10 Films reviewed Cohen and Tate on Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Video which released the film on Dual Format DVD/Blu-ray on December 5, 2016. Sporting a terrific audio-visual presentation (the film hasn’t looked or sounded this good in years), the release also comes with a handful of illuminating extra features including an audio commentary from writer-director Eric Red and a 20-minute “making of” documentary featuring the now grown up actor who portrayed Travis in the movie.