Cohen & Tate is a dark comedy of errors that relies on the inability of a pair of hit men to properly deliver a child witness to their mafia employers, and to watch it now over 20 years later is to revel in the days when bad men could convincingly go off the social grid to do bad things. Cohen (Roy Scheider) and Tate (Adam Baldwin) get lost over the course of the film, and you can’t help but consider the GPS that would now instantly bail them out of their predicament, or at the very least the wireless connection on their smartphones that could properly advise them of the ideal route to their destination in Houston. No, these guys, poor saps, have to stop off and speak to actual people in order to find the road that eludes them.
Of course, a more optimistic person could reasonably assert that our presently available methods of transforming ourselves into privately cocooned, fully functioning AV libraries spares us of the possibility of running afoul of characters such as Cohen and Tate, who admittedly strike us as less-than-savory individuals who’re prone to killing most of their benefactors. But it’s difficult not to notice the thrill that’s missing from the contemporary road movie in contrast to even a straightforward genre programmer like Cohen & Tate, which indirectly reflects the wandering spirit that’s been sacrificed in favor of the voluntary 24/7 surveillance we currently celebrate in an age that’s ushered “Google” into the unofficial cultural lexicon as a proper verb.
Divorced of its context as a time capsule, Cohen & Tate is an effective chamber play masquerading as a road movie. The distinctions between the titular duo are predictable: Cohen embodies aging dignity and human decency that’s ironic in light of his chosen profession, while Tate is a tedious hot head who wants to immediately go rogue and kill their young hostage in order to satiate a personal blood lust. Writer-director Eric Red’s narrative kink, which he borrows from O. Henry’s The Ransom of Red Chief, is that the hostage is smarter than both of his captors. The nine-year-old prisoner, Travis (Harley Cross), immediately sets about throwing the figurative fuel to Cohen and Tate’s preexisting tensions and his remarkable guile and intelligence eventually win him his life. Cohen & Tate is occasionally sluggish, and Baldwin’s broad performance is annoyingly shrill, but Red’s quietly authoritative direction meshes well with Scheider’s reliably crisp cucumber coolness. An uneven but enjoyably nihilistic night-in.
The image is appropriately soft, as much of the film is set at night on the road among the light that emits from passing vehicles and highway signs. Blacks are deep, and key sequences set at a truck stop and a gas station, respectively, boast terrific color and surprisingly strong depth of field considering the film’s low-budget origins. The twin audio tracks are well mixed, and the care that the Blu-ray’s producers have taken is particularly evident in the richness of Bill Conti’s unusual, evocative score.
The audio commentary with writer-director Eric Red contains some choice tidbits, such as the influence of the Texas economic recession on the making of the film, but it’s dry and skippable more often than not. The other supplementals, which include a brief crew reminiscence and the requisite collection of deleted scenes and stills, are similarly lackluster. There isn’t much to see here.
Cohen & Tate isn’t in the league of the best despairing existentialist thrillers of Walter Hill, but it’ll do in a pinch.