Wanted Dead or Alive

In the late 50’s, a western television series called Wanted Dead or Alive made a star out of a young actor named Steve McQueen. The series followed the exploits of bounty hunter Josh Randall for three seasons. Now jump forward to 1987 when New World Pictures brought a film version to the screen. However, westerns weren’t really box office gold in the 80’s, so instead, audiences were given an updated version with Rutger Hauer as Nick Randall, a descendant of McQueen’s character, continuing the bounty hunting tradition.

Nick is a former CIA-operative who is brought in by a former colleague (Robert Guillaume) to track down a terrorist named Malak Al-Rahim (Gene Simmons). This guy starts his campaign of terror by blowing up a beautiful old movie theater, so yeah, he sucks. However, Nick doesn’t realize that the CIA is actually using him as bait. See, Nick killed a bunch of Al-Rahim’s buddies back in his CIA days, so revenge and stuff.

Nick eventually learns that he can’t trust the CIA and he’s got to get to the terrorists before they get to him. Meanwhile, Al-Rahim has plans of his own to unleash some deadly gasses from a chemical factory. So, Nick becomes a one-man wrecking crew, dealing with terrorists as well as shifty government agents.

Calling this film an update of TV’s Wanted Dead or Alive is a stretch if there ever was one. Really, the only things they have in common are the title, the surname of the lead character, and the fact that he’s a bounty hunter. Oh, and at times the musical score takes on a bit of a western, harmonica-led, tone. Otherwise, this is a pretty standard on man against the forces of evil action flick. No doubt the goal was to give Rutger Hauer an opportunity to do the sort of action movies that Arnie and Sly were burning up the box office with. However, this film just doesn’t have the umpf of other more notable 80’s action fests.

Though Rutger Hauer is a great choice for a vehicle like this, this particular character isn’t terribly colorful. Everything from his look to the rundown warehouse where he lives seems to have come from some sort of lone-wolf action hero checklist. Of course, some folks say a movie hero is only as good as his villain, and here the villain has the same problem. Gene Simmons, who has built his career on being colorful, is given a pretty bland role, lacking in any of the eccentricities we want from an 80’s bad guy. Perhaps the biggest sin of all is that the film spends way too much time with the CIA suits when it should be giving dynamic moments to the primary hero and villain.

Let’s face it, though, some people don’t care one bit if there’s any sort of character development in a film like this. So for what it’s worth, a lot of stuff does go boom in this film. The movie theater bombing that really kicks things off is especially spectacular, if not a bit heartbreaking.  I mean, the film really plays up that innocent folks die in this disaster, including a picturesque family complete with a little girl who takes her dolly with her to see Rambo. But hey, we know these are just actors, they don’t really get hurt. What got to me is that we see a beautiful movie theater with a big bright neon marque turned to ashes. I’m trusting that movie magic actually saved this beautiful theater, but who knows. A variety of other buildings, cars and boats get turned into fireballs throughout the film, as well, so there’s at least a fair amount of excitement, even if the cast isn’t that engaging.

Wanted Dead or Alive is clearly a lower-tier 80’s action film. It could’ve very easily been a big studio action tentpole with Stallone or Schwarzenegger or Willis. The basic elements are there. Instead, it’s a lower budget offering from New World Pictures starring Rutger Hauer. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hauer and I squeal like a schoolgirl whenever I see that 80’s era New World logo show up on screen. Still, this is a film that would have benefitted from a bit more flash and a bit more cash to make it more satisfying.

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