Cohen and Tate (1988) Retrospective

Two professional assassins are sent to kidnap a 9-year-old boy named Travis Knight (Harley Cross), who is under the United States Federal Witness Protection Program in Oklahoma after witnessing a mob killing in Texas. Cohen (Roy Scheider) is the older, jaded assassin with a little bit of humanity still in him. Tate (Adam Baldwin) is the younger, hotheaded and psychopathic killer.


The two hitmen assassinate the boy’s parents and the agent who protected them with the help of another agent who lets them get in the house and then runs away. They capture Travis and drive him away to see their boss, in Houston. When Travis learns this from Cohen, he takes advantage of a rising antagonism between his hijackers to further tangle and pit one against the other in order to survive.

When his captors are distracted Travis escapes and is soon picked up by a Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper, who is later shot in the head by Cohen while he’s driving. Once again they capture Travis and then they hear on the radio that the boy’s father survived the attack and is only injured, and the police are after their trail. Tate wants to get rid of Travis but Cohen does not. They suddenly find a roadblock ahead and manage to escape by threatening to kill Travis and blowing up the police patrols.

They swap cars with a driver after he gets brass knuckles in the face from Tate. Cohen suddenly stops driving and parks beside a mailbox. Without saying a word, with an expression of grief (coming from the suspicion of what could be his last job), he sends part of his payment and his money clip in a letter to his wife. Travis finally manages to turn his captors on each other, when he realizes that Tate is about to shoot the sleepy Cohen while he is driving. He shouts at Cohen, warning him. This enrages Tate, who calls Travis a liar. Travis spits at Tate, and when Tate tries to harm him, he gets shot and chucked out of the moving car by Cohen, who later stows his body in the trunk.

A stop at the gas station leaves an overly curious attendant getting shot through a glass door after he sees blood coming out of the car’s trunk while attempting to call for help. Cohen goes to check on Tate only to be attacked on by his now-enraged and still-alive partner, who springs out of the trunk and batters Cohen senseless. He reveals himself to have been wearing a bulletproof vest. Travis manages to drive the car away from Tate and hide among pump jacks and oil tanks in an oil field. Cohen reappears and handcuffs Travis to his wrist. Tate stalks them in the dark. When Cohen moves abruptly to shoot where he thinks Tate is, he loses his hearing aid. Travis finds it but hesitates about speaking out. Cohen looks at Travis with fear in his eyes, and pleads for help. Travis gives him the hearing aid and Cohen thanks him. While escaping, Tate suddenly comes out and shoots Cohen, who takes a round to the shoulder and appears to pass out. Tate advances on Travis before being shot by Cohen, causing him to fall beneath an oil pump jack and be splattered everywhere by the equipment.

When he gets to Houston, Cohen is cornered on the highway by the police and considers shooting Travis, but the boy lets him know that he can’t do it and they both know it. Cohen collides with a roadblock in his last attempt to escape. When the car breaks down, he is totally surrounded. Holding Travis close to him, he cocks his gun, and asks him: “How old are you, kid”? Travis answers “nine”. While looking up, Cohen says: “Nine, huh? How about that?” and shoots himself through the throat, dying instantly.

Roy Scheider and Eric Red discussing a shot behind-the-scenes
Roy Scheider and Eric Red discussing a shot behind-the-scenes

Eric Red’s debut as a feature director. Shot in 45 days on location in Texas by cinematographer Victor Kemper, the $5.5 million Nelson Entertainment production, starring Roy Scheider, is currently shopping for a major distributor for release this spring. Prominent among the technical crew are editor Ed Abrams and Bill Conti, who has been signed to write the score.

Even those turned off by the prevalent violence in THE HITCHER-a script Red sold by sending out unsolicited letters to agents and making follow-up calls on a pay phone-and NEAR DARK acknowledge that the writer has a knack for fashioning visceral horror. For the record, Red doesn’t feel that either film falls into the “shock and gore” category.

Lining up a high angle shot of the farmhouse in Texas
Lining up a high angle shot of the farmhouse in Texas

“It goes without saying that there’s a certain amount of violence in people and the world we live in,” said Red. “Most of it is kept under control, as it should be. But there’s a lot that people don’t deal with, a lot of dark undercurrents that exist beneath every personal relationship we have. Cohen and Tate deals with that, to some degree, and I think that may be what people respond to in my films, their psychology. Cohen and Tate concerns one of Red’s favorite subjects: the American outlaw. Cohen (Scheider), a seasoned hit man, has been paired with a hot-shot psycho named Tate (Adam Baldwin). Red defines the genre he works in as suspense with a psychological edge. While he gets noticeably rankled when the subject of reviews of THE HITCHER is brought up (“I think that by and large, the critics were stupid; there’s no other word for it. They created a perception of the film I don’t think was accurate, and it hurt business”), he insists that Cohen and Tate’s emphasis on psychological bloodletting is in no way a reaction to the critics who denounced THE HITCHER on the basis of its violence.

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“What interested me was a 9-year-old boy getting kidnapped by these two hitmen, but still having enough of a survival instinct to turn the killers against each other,* Red describes. “But there’s an unlikely bond between Cohen and the kid. who even helps him find his hearing aid. The movie works best when they’re onscreen together, and I wish I’d written more scenes for them.”

Directing the bloody farmhouse shoot-out
Directing the bloody farmhouse shoot-out

“Blood is a fantastic thing if you use it right,” said Red. “I think it can have a tremendous visceral lw effect on the audience. There’s a big difference between using a hundred squibs exploding and showing someone simply falling after being hit. Psychological terror is the nature of Cohen and Tate.”

Beyond its unfilmed emotions, the MPAA wound up removing the violence that gave Cohen and Tate its primal impact. “It ended up being an action movie without a major set piece.” Red sighs. “I lost most of the final gunfight between Roy Scheider and Adam Baldwin, which was intrinsic to a story about two hitmen who end up doing what they’re best at-but to each other.”

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The already gutted Cohen received its theatrical death blow when Nelson Entertainment dumped the film in the Midwest. “It was completely mishandled: you can’t open a movie in 161 theaters with $2 in advertising.” Red frowns. “However, the movie still turned out to be a large hit on video, and everyone saw it in Hollywood. That made it much easier to get another directing as assignment, but this time I was warier about my next picture getting a decent release, even if that meant being a little more mainstream in terms of its story. Cohen and Tale was essentially a small movie that showed how far I could go with three people in a car.

Eric Red

Antony Rufus-Isaacs
Jeff Young

Based on
“The Ransom of Red Chief”
by O. Henry (Uncredited)

Roy Scheider as Cohen
Adam Baldwin as Tate
Harley Cross as Travis Knight
Cooper Huckabee as Jeff Knight
Suzanne Savoy as Martha Knight
Marco Perella as FBI Agent George
Tom Campitelli as FBI Agent Fred
Andy Gill as FBI Agent Roy (as Andrew R. Gill)
Frank Bates as Highway Patrolman

Cinefantastique v19n03

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