Thursday, April 4, 2013

Sky Riders (1976)

Director: Douglas Hickox                              Writer: Jack DeWitt
Film Score: Lalo Schifrin                              Cinematography: Ousama Rawi
Starring: James Coburn, Susannah York, Robert Culp and Charles Aznavour

I’ll never forget being utterly mesmerized by this film as a kid one night at the theater. Re-watching it today, I’m very happy to report it still has the same magic it had almost forty years ago. The key is definitely the script by Jack DeWitt and his co-writers Stanley Mann and Garry Michael White. It’s an ingenious idea for a kidnapping and rescue plot. British director Douglas Hickox made a series of fine films in the late seventies, including Theatre of Blood and Brannigan before moving over to television, and he does a fantastic job here. Sky Riders still crackles with excitement and inventiveness even today. It has a wonderful premise and has a terrific climax that is a lot more satisfying than most modern action films.

Robert Culp is a rich industrialist living with his wife, Susannah York, and two children in Greece. One morning a group of terrorists wearing hockey masks--six years before Jason Voorhees--break into their home, killing all of the servants and kidnapping York and the children. Meanwhile professional smuggler James Coburn just gets in from a trip to Lebanon and learns of the kidnapping. York is his ex-wife, and the boy is his son. He meets with Culp right away in order to figure out a way of saving their family before the 48-hour deadline is up, knowing that Culp won’t be able to raise the five million dollars the terrorists are asking for. The answer: hang glide into their monastery mountain hideout at night. The European backdrop is gorgeous and there is tension and excitement enough for any fan of the genre.

Though they both had their start in films decades before, it’s great to see Culp and Coburn in their prime in the seventies. Susannah York, of course, is the requisite love interest and she’s incredibly alluring in a very natural way. Even so, there’s none of the self-destructive competitiveness between former and ex-husbands that we see so much of today, and it’s refreshing. It doesn’t mean they like each other, but they have a common goal and are willing to leave the past behind. The aerial photography with the hang gliders is brilliant, and holds up just as well today, as does the story. In fact, it’s one of the better action/adventure films of the last forty years. The film is available in a double feature along with another Coburn western film, The Last Hard Men. Both are good, but Sky Riders is the gem, still great after all these years.

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