Inspired by the real-life 1931 manhunt for “The Mad Trapper,” Albert Johnson, Death Hunt takes a grim, gray look at the idea of heroes and villains in the last frontier: the Yukon. Although the film has a phenomenal pedigree (including director Peter R. Hunt, known for editing the first half-dozen James Bond movies and directing that franchise’s most underrated entry, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), the film gets too distracted by the manhunt to work as a moody character study. Unfortunately, the manhunt itself is much less interesting than the people involved in it. This makes Death Hunt a well-made disappointment, with a great first half and a dull second half.
Charles Bronson stars as Johnson, a stoic loner who runs afoul of Hazel (Ed Lauter, continuing his tradition of playing the most unpleasant character in whatever movie he’s appearing in). Hazel sets up dogfights for the enjoyment of the local miners, and Johnson does not like dogfights. He beats the holy hell out of Hazel, then buys one of the bloodied, mangled dogs and nurses him back to health. Hazel complains to the local mounted police, led by Sergeant Edgar Millen (Lee Marvin). If you think the idea of Lee Marvin as a Canadian Mountie is surreal, you’re not alone. It gets more surreal when Carl Weathers shows up as Millen’s right-hand man, Sundog. The new recruit, Constable Alvin Adams (Andrew Stevens), finds the illegal dogfights more disconcerting than the alleged dog theft, but as Millen grimly foreshadows, “It’s better than them fighting each other.”
Hazel assembles a posse of mostly comic-relief characters to take down Johnson, but he’s a better shot. He kills one of Hazel’s men, which forces the reluctant Millen to finally act. Fully aware that Johnson acted in self-defense, Millen comes to his isolated cabin to reason with him. He gets through to Johnson, but everything goes to hell when Hazel and his men open fire. Johnson immediately loses his trust in Millen, and what follows is a ridiculously violent standoff followed by a lengthy manhunt through the Canadian Rockies.
The early parts of the film revel in the characters and environment. I went into the experience knowing nothing about the plot or its real-life basis, and I thoroughly enjoyed the way it established characters, setting, and tone without tipping its hand about the plot’s direction. When the plot finally gets going, though, it’s a disappointment. It seems as if the first act wants to pit Johnson against Hazel, with Millen and his men trying to keep the peace in a largely lawless town.
Instead, the film brings in an Air Force captain (Scott Hylands) to challenge Millen’s competence, shifting the conflict in a different, unsatisfying direction. In addition to relying on endless biplane footage, the film starts to ignore the characters and conflicts it set up in the first act. Maybe that would have succeeded if the new ideas it brought in were more interesting than what it left behind. One could argue that these flaws exist because the filmmakers wanted to stick to the facts of the Mad Trapper manhunt, but apparently they didn’t. The true story does not paint Johnson as terribly sympathetic: Rather than rescuing a poor, defenseless dog from a sinister man, Johnson was reported to the constabulary for springing competitors’ traps, and he murdered most of the Mounties who pursued him (including Edgar Millen, at whom he laughed when his shot killed him) long before they desperately brought in expert trackers and bush pilots to aid in the search.
Despite the film’s overall problems, Bronson and Marvin do great work in the lead roles. In particular, Bronson shines in a surprising scene in which Johnson finds himself seriously affected by “My Darling Clementine.” The film doesn’t delve into his backstory, but Johnson’s reaction to it communicates deep-seated pain and vulnerability that pretty much says everything we need to know about this character. Bronson rarely has opportunities to express such emotional depth in his characters, but he manages to make the pain resonate despite us not knowing the details of its genesis. Marvin doesn’t have any standout scenes like this, but he’s reliable as ever as the tough yet conflicted peacemaker.
I can’t help feeling disappointed in Death Hunt. Its combined elements could have made it great, but the script lets the film down. What it gets right almost makes it worth watching, but it’s just not quite good enough to recommend.