Cohen & Tate (1989): Cunning kid tries to outwit a couple of seriously bad dudes

I truly am a sucker for dusky 1980s American neo-noir. As a kid, I would routinely wear out VHS tapes with the likes of The Hitcher, Near Dark and Coens debut Blood Simple, the electro-ambient scoring and neon-hued night-time of the Texas, Arizona and California desert regions crafting a world that, while alien to young British me, evoked an emotive landscape that was simultaneously infused with threat, poignancy and wonder. These kinds of thrilling tales in that particular atmosphere is actually the thing that imbued me with the initial impulse to get to the United States one day. It’s arguably a perverse interpretation on my part as the characters don’t exactly convey the most inviting spirit, but I was a weird kid (not that that’s ever truly stopped).

One title that proved a particularly addictive entity at this inappropriate viewing stage is Cohen & Tate, a little cult hit written and directed by horror-thriller stalwart Eric Red. His feature-length debut after writing Robert Harmon and Kathryn Bigelow’s aforementioned classics, it was finally released on DVD in 2013 after a decade-plus of dogged campaigning by fans, and is every bit as quotable, solidly acted, vicious and exciting as the more popular films of its ilk.

Travis Knight (Harley Cross) is a 9-year-old boy living in Oklahoma. Having witnessed a contract killing in Houston, Texas, Travis and his parents are currently under the round-the-clock eye of WITSEC agents as they hide out in a remote farmhouse. Banal expressions notwithstanding, you could nevertheless cut the tension with a knife as the Knight family and their protectors sit, wait, think and desperately strive to maintain some air of normality as they wonder whether the crime syndicate who want Travis will come crashing through the door like the legions of Hell.

The Knight’s jitters are soon met with an answer as the titular characters announce their presence in a phenomenally violent opening sequence. Cohen (Roy Scheider) is a middle-aged hitman whose hearing and job satisfaction are fading fast, the senior murderer being constantly ornery and essentially burnt out after years at wet-work. Tate (Adam Baldwin), ostensibly Cohen’s partner but really his subordinate, is a wantonly cruel twenty-something psychopath who loves spilling blood and allows his hair-trigger temper to cloud whatever meagre rational faculties he possesses. Together, they mercilessly slay Travis’s mum & dad and all of the protection agents and haul the whippersnapper into their car, intent on delivering him into the hands of the Houston-based crime family who want to shut the poor tyke’s mouth forever.

As they hit the road for Texas, young Travis slowly begins to pick up on the divergent personalities of his two captors. Cohen is blunt, aloof and irritable but he appears to still carry some vestige of humanity around with him, preferring as little conversation in the car as possible but answering the child’s enquiries with a matter-of-fact detachment. ”Who wants to see me in Houston?”. ”Mob people”. ‘Are these people gonna kill me?”. ”Probably”. Despite this coldness, Cohen is bereft of tolerance for Tate’s excessive bullying of the boy, angrily reprimanding the younger assassin’s suggestions to kill him and be done with it. As Tate persists with threats and generally antagonising Travis, Cohen’s patience wears violently thin, and their young charge proves to be wilier than they could have imagined as he starts to exploit the enmity between the two men to get away in one piece.

At 87 minutes, this is a compact and utterly solid thriller that delivers in every single scene. Scheider gives one of the greatest unsung performances of his career here as Cohen, the morose and cynical old-timer who blasts people into paste for a living yet still despises kids being picked on and the loudmouthed/sadistic quadrants of his professional peers. Despite his cold-blooded slaughter of Travis’ parents, he becomes strangely easy to root for in his progressively dangerous to-and-fro with Tate, snapping back at the young lunatic’s queries as to why they can’t just get along with a brusque ”Because I don’t like you”. Scheider’s humanistic idiosyncrasies, coupled with the very immediate danger of Cohen’s hearing aids or lack thereof, create a villain imbued with paternalistic seniority that we cannot help but care about a little.

Baldwin matches Scheider’s enigmatic intensity in a resolutely detestable performance as Tate, the consummately mad young gun whose thin skin around a 9-year-old would be utterly pathetic if he wasn’t such an unpredictably lethal force. There is a gormless, slack-jawed idiocy to Baldwin’s performance, supplemented with interjections of wryly amusing dialogue, and it subtly goes a long way into forming the believably scary Bigger Bad of the picture. Introduced with his shades on, chewing gum and pointing his cumbersome life-ender at unwitting victims, Tate doesn’t have the age for seasoning nor does he have cards up his sleeve, but there is just enough snide, disgusting guile in his hate-filled, explosive cranium that he’s one of the last people you’d be pleased to know was sharing your oxygen.

The rousing and suspenseful score by Bill Conti is a wonderfully booming and daunting arrangement of strings that compounds the gravity of the pallid sweat nightmare that Travis finds himself in, Victor J. Kemper’s whip-smart cinematography making thoroughgoing use of dimly-lit Texan backroads and highways around the claustrophobic vehicular tomb that implores the viewer to feel desperately fearful and sorry for Travis. Every shot and note is suffused with the free-wheeling non-sentimentality of proceedings, cementing the picture as a most splendid and precarious throwback where you’re gradually left under no illusions that you’re in the company of a couple of hard-bitten and deeply pathological men who are indifferent to a child’s potential death (both presented as such on the surface, at any rate).

Practically unknown by casual moviegoing circles, Cohen & Tate is one of the greatest and most underrated thrillers of the 1980s. Unapologetically violent, scary, clever, darkly funny and even poignant, it subsists on the crackerjack acting of its three principals and a spectacularly grim and spare utility of rural Texas. It’s a testament to the power of economic filmmaking, and it deserves a place as a midnight movie staple for every generation to come.

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