Somewhere towards the front of your local 99 cent store, buried in the wire metal DVD carousels next to the straight-to-disc Nigerian voodoo comedies, is one of the most entertaining and star-packed action films of the 1980s, Stewart Raffill’s High Risk.
This blast of an adventure film about four gringos headed south of the border to rob a drug lord can boast the lead tough guy acting talents of James Brolin, who in 1981 had just come off the independently produced success of The Amityville Horror and was most likely the “name” that distributors needed to push the film into theaters. Brolin is joined by fellow contemporary actors Cleavon Little, Lindsay Wagner, and Bruce Davison as well as no less than three Oscar winning actors: Ernest Borgnine, James Coburn, and Anthony Quinn to make High Risk a supremely well-casted film. That is a lot of talent to have met with such an unglamourous fate as being hoisted into the budget rack.
I truly feel that High Risk is the perfect action film for its place and era.
Towards the end of the year, 1980, the future of the United States was looking pretty dim. The hostages were still being held in Iran; there was the energy crisis with its gas shortages and long lines that started in the 1970s but were still in full force; trash strikes, police strikes, and, as expected, inflation was just getting out of control. In this climate, enter our heroes, four working class men (James Brolin, Cleavon Little, Bruce Davison, and Chick Vennera), who head down to Colombia to rob a few million from a wealthy drug kingpin, Serrano, (James Coburn) based on the information that Brolin’s character, the aptly named Stone, discovered when he was covering a news story.
In keeping in line with the peaceful 1970s, our group has no intentions of killing anyone; they have a way of getting the money without doing that, but still, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared, so our heroes stop by the local illegal arms dealer Clint (Ernest Borgnine) to get some machine guns and pistols. A key moment of dialog comes when Clint asks the gang after he arms them, if, “They’ve got a name” to which Stone replies,”No.” Then Clint asks, “Do you boys have a cause?” and Stone simply replies, “Inflation.” Clint then states: “Times must be changing. The last ten years it ain’t been nothing but causes.”
To all of us who grew up in the 1970s, it did seem as though every day there was a new violent political organization doing some damage somewhere. So, whether it was The Baader-Meinhof Group, The Weather Underground, The Symbionese Liberation Army, there was some political “cause” that would inspire violence, but this was now the 1980s, and after all of the aforementioned groups were defeated in different ways, the only “cause” that most likely made sense for the subsequent decade was money. And as far as the killing was concerned, our group in High Risk could believe whatever they wanted to believe before their trip, but reality always has the last say doesn’t it?
Our thieves head down to Colombia in an old, doped up, Douglas C-47 Skytrain, complete with cannabis leaves painted on the sides of the aircraft, which is being flown by two hippyish pilots, clear remnants of the previous era. Our hippy pilots draw some dismissive laughs from our heroes when they suggest some “body stimulants” before the team has to parachute into the jungle, which our novice paratroopers do successfully. I should say that along with our band of outlaws is a pretty toy dog, just like the ones you see being carried by yuppies these days in West Hollywood.
Why does our crew have the need for one of these precious creatures in Colombia?
To have a cunning tool for distracting the guard dogs at the well-secured villa of Serrano’s, of course. They get into the compound without issue, but, alas, the combination that they have to unlock Serrano’s safe has failed, so they must now find the drug lord to get him to open the vault. Our thieves grab the money, huge bags of it, and are virtually free until they see an unarmed young man whom they have to beat, in a rather grim way, to keep him quiet. Then the bullets start flying, and our boys make a quick dash on stolen horses to the mountains where they hope to camp out until their magic carpet C-47 flies in to take them away in three days.
The next morning, the military comes over the hill and is after our friendly thieves, and in the melee of trying to escape, the boys split up.
Rockney (Cleavon Little) and Tony (Chick Vennera) are captured and thrown in a cell next to fellow American Oli (Lindsay Wagner), but Stone and Dan (Bruce Davison) make it out by jumping off a cliff into a raging river to only then be captured by the loquacious Mariano (Anthony Quinn in a sublime over-the-top performance) and his large band of deliriously jolly banditos.
Somehow, all four of our men have to get free from their captors and make it back to the falls by the landing strip in time for their return flight.
Oh, and in case if you are wondering about their adorable tiny dog, she got away.
That is your setup, and it is an understatement to write that final third of High Risk delivers on its promise of action made by the first two thirds of the film. The pace throughout is fast and tense, but there are also some small moments that allow you insight into the lives and makeup of Dan, Rockney, Tony, and Stone, especially after the killing starts, and they begin to question the need to take a life for money when they live in a country that has nowhere near the poverty of the place that they are robbing.
Raffill, who also wrote the screenplay, does good job here to include these moments so that you understand how these men are put together. They were like most Americans, going through a tough time in the States, and keeping that perspective against the rest of the world is sometimes tough until you look people in the face.
None of the political messages club you over the head in High Risk, as there is a balance here between the action, laughs, and yes, a message, in a time where having one was starting to become an endangered species.
Sadly, even though High Risk received good reviews on it’s initial release, most notably from from Janet Maslin of the New York Times, and Siskel and Ebert who made the film their “Pick Of The Week” (which is why I saw it back in the day), the film faded into obscurity.
Director Stewart Raffill himself explains why this may have happened in an interview that he did for the 2015 book by author Tadhg Taylor, Masters of the Shoot-’Em Up:
“You have no control over your films once you’ve made them. If you’re working for a studio, they will usually baby them and maintain them, but independents are so fleeting in their presence, especially nowadays, that it’s very easy for films to get lost because the business side of things isn’t working. High Risk came out theatrically and was doing well, but within a week the company that distributed it went under, and the film just ended up in no man’s land. Audiences liked it though, and it was talked about and because of that I got the job directing The Ice Pirates for MGM.”
If not for anything else, I am glad that the positive reviews High Risk received back in the day at least earned director Raffill another chance to direct for a major studio.
And, I hope that now that you are armed with this review and the knowledge of that random distribution misfortune of Raffill’s, you are less dismissive when you see poorly packaged DVD copies of High Risk spinning in a rack by the checkout counter: a budget store’s last chance for your cash retail space that is usually reserved for the rapidly made and the usually poorly transferred public domain classics, like Coppola’s Dementia 13 and Romero’s Night of The Living Dead, which are films that are too good to be horribly transferred and offered for sale next to old candy.
I will give the same praise to High Risk, a film filled with beautifully clunky comedic moments, absorbing characters portrayed by talented veteran actors, and action that is loud, fast, and cleverly executed. It also has an unexpected ending that stands as one of my all-time favorites for an 80s action film.
All of that entertainment for just 99 cents?
Well, I call that a bargain.