Nobody steals from Brandt Ruge-...and lives. With a stellar cast led by Oscar winner Gene Hackman (Unforgiven), Emmy winner Candice Bergen (Murphy Brow) and Oliver Reed (Gladiator), this searing western fires round after round of emotional heat with a torrid frontier love triangle that can only lead to revenge. To cattle baron Brandt Ruger (Hackman), his beautiful wife Melissa (Bergen) is just one of his possessions. So when notorious bandit Frank Calder (Reed) kidnaps Melissa, Ruger isn't concerned about her - he's enraged that someone stole from him. Melissa finds her captor quite kind, but Ruger is organizing a posse to hunt down the pair and recover his property-dead or alive!
I've said it before in previous reviews and no doubt I'll say it again; establishing a sense of tone is important for any movie. Is your film going to be dreary and disturbing? Light and airy? Something in between? Whichever way a filmmaker goes, they'd better stick the landing. Not just with the story and events that happen but the characters and how they interact with one another. If that doesn't work, the rest of the movie - no matter how good - falls apart. Unfortunately, that is the exact precarious position Don Medford's The Hunting Party finds itself. A great cast featuring Gene Hackman, Oliver Reed, and Candice Bergen find themselves with unlikable characters in a film with a questionable moral center.
Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman) owns the county. He's a man who gets what he wants when he wants it - even if it means taking by force. His wife Melissa (Candice Bergen) knows this all too well and her life is a measure of misery if she displeases Brandt. When she's taken captive by the outlaw Frank Calder (Oliver Reed) and his gang, Melissa's lot in life would appear to be at its lowest. Only in Calder, she finds a serenity she's never known. Calder actually cares for her, provides for her, and even loves her. This piece Melissa has found in the unlikeliest of places with the worst sort of people is threatened when Brandt and his pals declare war on Calder and his gang using high-powered long distance rifles.
The Hunting Party aims to be a rip-roaring action and adventure western along the lines of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. A take no prisoner's, hold nothing back down and dirty gritty western that borderlines on exploitation. The plot of a jealous man taken to murder for revenge because he can't stand the thought any man stealing from him is a terrific setup for a western. The use of long-range rifles is a terrific plot device that keeps the heroes on their toes and pushes the suspense because one wrong move could mean their deaths. The problem is Don Medford is no Peckinpah. While Peckinpah is a well known for his uses of hyper-violent imagery, he knew how to use it by owning the weight of the actions with the characters. When the sheriff and his men turn out to be worse than William Holden's gang, it's easy to side with the bad guys. That much-needed character dynamic isn't to be found within The Hunting Party.
The film's opening imagery of Reed's Calder and his men slaughtering a cow for food juxtaposed with Hackman's Brandt essentially raping Candice Bergen is striking, unsettling, and effective. It immediately paints a portrait of the characters. Calder is a man who will do anything to survive while Brandt will do anything he wants when he wants no matter who he hurts doing it. That line of good and bad is drawn pretty clearly and had it stayed that way, The Hunting Party would work much better than it does. The problems start for this film when Calder kidnaps Melissa, defends her from being raped by his own men, but then rapes her anyway when she understandably tries to escape. That moral compass is thrown off further when Melissa forgives Calder and essentially falls in love with him simply because he gives her a jar of preserved peaches.
So, with a bunch of genuinely terrible characters on both sides of the equation, it's difficult to hang your shingle on any one of them making it hard to care when things start to go bad. Both Reed and Hackman are delivering terrific performances as the worst of the bad men of the old west. Hackman has a particular knack for playing sleazy evil as he would later demonstrate again in 1972's Prime Cut. His intensity is such that it's almost fun watching him be that evil. But that kind of evil character is enjoyable only if there is someone for him to play off of, someone that is destined to set that character right. Unfortunately, Oliver Reed's Calder just isn't that character. Candice Bergen is a fine actress and she does what she can with her part as Melissa, but the character is such a wet blanket she has little material to work with.
Like The Wild Bunch, The Hunting Party takes gleeful joy in hyper-violent bloodletting. To that end, the gun fights and action sequences are the saving graces for The Hunting Party. There's tension, suspense, paranoia and then the screen erupts in a flurry of gunfire. These sequences are well choreographed even going so far as to ape the slow-motion juxtaposition editing of The Wild Bunch to make the violence feel even more barbaric and visceral. It's during these moments where Hackman's Brandt and his gang are taking on killer outlaws lead by Reed's Calder that the film finds its strengths. Two unstoppable forces coming to a head in a violent bloody range war. But as I said, the film's characters are so damned unlikable and their motivations handled with such kid gloves that the violence and much of the rest of the story loses any purpose. I really was looking forward to The Hunting Party. It's a dream cast and I love revenge movies and westerns, but this film left me numb and disinterested in who lived or died by the time the end credits rolled.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Hunting Party arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics label. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 disc, the disc comes housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case with reversible artwork. A booklet containing cover images of other Kino Lorber Studio Classics releases is also included. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
The Hunting Party features a strong 1.85:1 1080p transfer. Film grain is apparent without being too noisy or intrusive. The film features some fantastic details, especially in the rugged scenery. Costuming and makeup work add to the rich western flavor. The contrast between Calder's range life and the opulent world Brandt lives in is a nice touch of production design work. Colors are a tad on the muted side favoriting earth tones and heavy browns. Skin tones are healthy but a bit on the pale side. Black levels are strong with a nice sense of shadow separation and depth. There are a couple instances where contrast can be a bit hot, Melissa's white dress can bloom in a couple scenes but nothing too severe. Some speckling is apparent throughout, but no serious damage can be seen. All around a solid looking transfer.
The Hunting Party gets a lot of range out of its English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout. Sound effects are well layered and provide a nice sense of atmosphere and space - especially in the wide open shots as Brandt closes in on Calder's men. The big action sequences offer a lot of great activity and plenty of channel movement and imaging. The real standout here is Riz Ortolani's terrific and haunting score. The music hits all the creepy tense notes and punches up the low tones giving the film a great sense of dread during the quieter moments when you're left waiting for something to happen. Levels are just fine and shouldn't require any monitoring. Free of any hiss or pops, this is a solid audio mix.
The Hunting Party is given a modest assortment of bonus features. The audio commentary is a solid listen while the Mitchell Ryan interview offers great insight into the production as well about the actor's own troubled past.
Audio Commentary Featuring film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson
Mitchell Ryan Interview (HD 12:04)
Theatrical Trailer (HD 3:01)
Burnt Offerings (SD 2:29)
Prime Cut (SD 2:34)
The Organization (HD 2:54)
The Missouri Breaks (HD 1:49)
I was really looking forward to devouring The Hunting Party hoping that it would be a rough and tough western. It's certainly rough and tough, but for all the wrong reasons with a constant sense of meanness that simply isn't redeemable. Even a ferocious performance from Gene Hackman fails to make the film with the time investment. I just didn't take to this one. Kino Lorber Studio Classics has done a terrific job pulling this disc together with a strong A/V presentation and a couple of decent bonus features. Fans of the film should be very happy with this release, but newcomers may want to give the film a rent first before jumping into a blind buy.