A sullen loner named Albert Johnson (Charles Bronson) arrives in the Canadian Yukon during the 1930s. Local ruffians take against the stranger, their antagonism further fuelled when he rescues an Alsatian hound they want killed for losing a dogfight. Back at his log cabin, Johnson tries nursing the animal back to health, but it dies during a sudden ambush. Johnson kills one of his attackers in self-defence, prompting the hot-headed townsfolk to grab their rifles. Hard-bitten mountie, Sgt. Edgar Millen (Lee Marvin) and his compatriots, G.W. Lincoln Brown (Carl Weathers) and Alvin Adams (Andrew Stevens) try to resolve the situation peacefully, but a shootout breaks out between the trigger-happy hicks and one-man-army Johnson. Johnson flees through the snowy wastes with a reluctant Millen in pursuit.
Tough guy icons Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin team up for the second time, following The Dirty Dozen (1967). Death Hunt is an early attempt by Hong Kong film studio Golden Harvest (benefactors of Bruce Lee and later, Jackie Chan) to break into the international market. It’s a highly fictionalized account of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s pursuit of fugitive and mass murderer, Albert Johnson. With Bronson in the role things play out a little differently, if no less violently, coming across like a prototype for First Blood (1982). Here, Johnson acts purely in self-defence, blowing away scurvy villains whose nastiness permits viewers to revel in their grisly fate. Later the authorities incorrectly pin him for a number of other murders going on in the Yukon over the past ten years, until Johnson himself identifies the culprit. The real madman turns out to be a completely arbitrary figure, one of several u-turns that render Death Hunt frequently nonsensical.
Director Peter Hunt started out as one of the greatest editors in British cinema. His inspired cutting emboldened some groundbreaking action sequences throughout the James Bond series, and Hunt made his debut as director with the once-neglected, now beloved, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Away from action movies he showed a softer side with the likeable part-live action, part animated Gulliver’s Travels (1977) starring Richard Harris and Disney sci-fi Hyper Sapiens (1986). Hunt’s skill shines in the action scenes, which frequently rely on Bronson leaping out of nowhere and blasting baddies to bits, but the drama is sluggish and meandering. Too much time is wasted on early scenes where Andrew Steven’s callow, young recruit clashes with the more world-weary mounties. Angie Dickinson’s cameo is a similar non-starter. She plays a posh traveller passing through town who strikes up an unlikely romance with Millen, in an unsuccessful attempt to redress the gender balance in a movie mostly about manly men doing manly things.
We’re left with Bronson and Marvin to enliven the movie with some high class mumbling. Their gruff charisma crackles nicely through the handful of scenes they share together and Hunt once again shows his skilled way with editing, as glances, nods and raised eyebrows come to illustrate their grudging, mutual respect. Yet the film is mostly a chore and a wasted opportunity.