The Film: Wanted: Dead or Alive (1986) BUY IT FROM AMAZON!
The Principals: Gary Sherman (Director), Rutger Hauer, Gene Simmons, Robert Guillaume,
The Premise: Nick Randall (Rutger Hauer) is the Great-Grandson of Josh Randall – Steve McQueen’s character from the Wanted: Dead or Alive television series form the ’50s. Naturally, he’s Dutch.
Honestly, though – who gives a shit about that, right? The film certainly doesn’t. As I recall, the promotional campaign touched on it briefly, but it wasn’t something that stuck. His name is Randall. He’s a bounty hunter. He plays a harmonica (poorly). There you go.
Of course, being a cinematic ‘80s bounty hunter means you were once with the “Bureau” or the “Company”…doing black bag ops in countries with a lot of sand or jungle – and then you started questioning what it was all for…and who were the good guys and the bad guys really – and you got out before you were forced to surrender your soul. Or maybe you didn’t – maybe you stayed until you were a burnt-out shell of a man, walking that razor’s edge, trying to find a place where you can perpetually teeter between life and death…
I’ll stop now.
In contrast to the typical ‘80s setup, Rutger Hauer’s Randall is an affable gentleman – not very sentimental, perhaps – but a warm, friendly sort with an easy smile and a wry sense of humor. He’s got style, he keeps his dirty work and his personal life separate (the single overlap would be that his buddy Danny – played by the ever-charming William Russ – is a Lieutenant with the LAPD); he’s not the edgy, burned-out antihero – Nick Randall is a genuinely good guy.
But yeah, he’s also the former black bag Company Man, so he’s seen hell the world over. And sure – he did get out before he lost his soul, but wouldn’t you know it – the CIA (in the form of Robert “Benson” Guillaume) comes calling, begging him to help them hook a big fish that once escaped Randall’s net: Malak Al Rahim – played with disturbing detachment by legendary KISS bassist Gene Simmons.
Of course, when Malak attempts to kill Randall, he catches Danny and Nick’s girlfriend Terry (Mel Harris) in the crossfire – and that makes this takedown personal.
What follows is a cat-and-mouse thriller that owes more than a little to Michael Mann’s work – but not the flashy Miami Vice-style that was so popular and prevalent at the time of the film’s production. Wanted feels a lot like Mann’s Thief in style and tone. Taciturn and morally ambiguous, Gary Sherman’s film presents us with a warm, likable guy who – in the pursuit of his quarry – demolishes himself.
Hauer is great here, as his easy charm – so often employed to lend a chilling quality to his memorable villains – is pressed into service to show us what a decent sort Nick is before Simmons’ terrorist does that whole “take-everything-the-hero-has” thing villains do, at which point Rutger’s Randall becomes the walking dead. His demeanor changes entirely…there’s this subtle change to his body language and cadence that makes him almost Frankensteinian – as if Al Rahim’s murderous acts physically transform Randall into a golem – and yet, behind the eyes of a gifted performer like Hauer, there’s a deep sadness.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is the interrogation/torture of one of Al Rahim’s compatriots. Hauer’s character captures Al Rahim’s bombmaker, stuffs the guy into a steel cabinet, and proceeds to question him. Every time the terrorist is evasive, Randall fires buckshot through the cabinet door. A different film with a different lead and a different director might have worked overtime to show you how “badasss” this sequence is – but under Sherman’s guidance, Hauer seems as though he might begin weeping at any moment – as if he had successfully avoided being this breed of monster his entire life until now. He seems pained and exhausted by what he’s being forced to do. It’s peculiar choices like that – and the strange rhythms Sherman creates from a narrative standpoint – that take this film beyond standard-issue.
Simmons also does a hell of a job with his strange, shaded character work. The wide-eyed, sneering hamminess he brought to Runaway is replaced here with an icy remorselessness in service to a surprisingly atypical character. Malak Al Rahim isn’t the typical cinematic jihadist of the day – he’s a gun for hire (much like Hauer’s terrorist Wulfgar in Nighthawks – a film this one echoes in some ways). A man without a mission or bold proclamations of intent or grandiose speeches – he never stops to tell Randall how alike they are, he doesn’t monologue – and he seems to have cultivated a taste for some of the trappings of the decadent West. The absence of the sort-of towel-wrapped, ululating stereotypical simplicity on display in similar films of the period gives Wanted: Dead or Alive even more of a leg up over its competition.
Is it Good? I love it. It’s a terse, sinister slice of ‘80s fear-mongering featuring 96% less bullshit that the leading ‘80s brand – and while it’s definitely a case of “the less I tell you, the better” – Wanted: Dead or Alive features one of cinema’s best hard-ass endings of all time. It’s lean, nasty piece of work from a very smart journeyman filmmaker.
Is It Worth a Look? Most definitely – for Hauer and Simmons’ magical hair alone.
Random Anecdotes: Simmons was reluctant to take on villainous roles that traded on his Middle Eastern heritage (ironic then, that the Israeli-born entertainer is playing an Iranian terrorist here) – but he accepted this part after a film he was developing at Fox went south. The story of an ex-Mossad operative whose wife is kidnapped in order to pressure him into an assassination, the project was eventually rewritten for Arnold Schwarzenegger – and the rest is blatantly homoerotic ‘80s action flick history.
Cinematic Soulmates: Nighthawks, Die Hard, Commando, Vice Squad (another Sherman story about Los Angeles crime, grime, and (neon) slime)