Principal Cast : Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou, Ramon Bieri, Karl John, Peter Capell, Jean-Luc Bideau.
Synopsis: Four outcasts living in the South American jungle agree to drive two trucks laden with highly volatile nitroglycerine across 200 miles of rugged terrain to blow out an uncapped (and on fire) oil drilling platform.
Not the wizarding kind….
William Friedkin is a director every film fan will know. Okay, not know personally, but know of. He’s the man who directed two of the 70’s most iconic films: The French Connection, in 1971, and The Exorcist, in 1973. While most casual fans will know The Exorcist purely from its pop-culture idol worship, Friedkin’s “lesser” films from the 70’s and 80’s are worthy of equal attention, none more so than the oft forgot Sorcerer. Released a month after Star Wars in 1977, Sorcerer became a victim of George Lucas’s box-office behemoth and the tidal-wave of popular opinion and attention on all things science fiction; nobody had time for grim-n-gritty action any more, and so Sorcerer became yet another scuff mark on the blipping radar of cinematic shooting stars. It came, went, and bombed at the box office. Yet, nearly 40 years later, can we now appraise Sorcerer with the same critical eye? Is it a film deserving of being passed over, or is it something better than box office numbers and studio huffing and puffing might indicate? It starred the then-popular Roy Scheider, who had become a box office A-lister following the success of Jaws two years prior. It was helmed by the man who had given us The Exorcist – surely that counted for something? It featured a number of incredibly powerful explosions, of the real kind, not the fake stuff Hollywood loved to trot out. How could anyone dislike this movie?
Four disparate individuals, each hailing from the four corners of the globe, arrive in a small village in the jungles of South America, eager to escape their fates at home. One, Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider – Jaws), a former driver for a gang of thieves in the US, wants to return home, but his work for an American Oil Company in the town pays very little, and his prospects of escape are poor. When the company’s oil drilling platform explodes and ignites, company representative Corlette (Ramon Bieri) decides that the six cases of nitroglycerine in storage are needed to “blow out” the flame and allow the rig to recommence working. However, due to poor storage, the cases of nitro are now highly unstable, and require careful transportation. Corlette promises four drivers a vast sum of money – enough to escape the jungle for good – if they can transport the nitro on the back of two beat-up old trucks, 250 miles across unimaginably rugged terrain, to the oil rig. Jackie, together with Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), Kassem (Amidou – Escape To Victory, Ronin) and Nilo (Francisco Rabal), are given the job, and so begins their slow, dangerous trek through the jungle to the waiting oil rig beyond.
While he’s long decried any familiarity, Friedkin’s Sorcerer is a remake of the 1953 film, Wages Of Fear, which itself was based on the French novel La Salarie de la peur. Whether this film stacks up to the original movie or not, is not for me to discuss here, but Sorcerer is one of those 70’s hard-bitten action films that promises more than it ends up delivering. Oh, Sorcerer delivers plenty, especially if you like some terrific explosi0ns and visceral, bloody violence, but as a story, there’s some gaps in Sorcerer’s scope that leave room for improvement. For a film made in the mid-70’s, there’s a certain era-specific cuteness to proceedings, from the weird pink-hued “blood” to the Sergio Leone-esque closeups and rack-zooms. While you’d never mistake Sorcerer for being filmed yesterday, though, that grim, gritty, dirty aesthetic is what makes this film so good in its own right.
Sorcerer is nothing if not stylish: you can sense a master director at work here, regardless of the multiple production problems plaguing him behind the camera (and, to some extent, in front!) he pushes the envelope as to what devices and tricks he can use to tell this story. The story itself gets off to a rather rocky start, with four separate vignettes explaining the catalysts for our four main character to end up where they do, in the jungle; Manzon’s financial empire crumbles, and he flees France when his partner kills himself rather than face criminal prosecution, while Kassem is implicated in a terrorist attack and only he evades being killed or captured, and Nilo is an assassin of some kind, who must live on the down-low to avoid capture himself. Sorcerer’s introduction to these men throws you off balance a little, since you suddenly think you’re seeing another film than you really are, but it’s all part of Friedkin’s sleight-of-hand for the torture test to come.
The meat of the film comes with the transporting of the nitroglycerine across some of the most horrendous terrain you could possibly imagine. Given that the slightest twitch could set off the explosives without warning, and also given the implausible excuse by the chopper pilot not to transport the cases by air (something about lateral vibrations, if that makes any sense…) Sorcerer takes its sweet time getting to the main part of the plot. It’s here that Friedkin amplifies the tension superbly; the man can direct the shiznit out of human terror and fear, and it’s proven again as our sweaty, terrified central characters try to make some sweet cash to escape a living purgatory. Thankfully, too, lead actor Sheider isn’t glorified in his role as Jackie. While it’s Scheider’s name above the title on the DVD cover, and for all intents and purposes his name used to sell this film some 40 years later, he’s not the sole occupant of this adventure. Often, the narrative shifts to one of the other characters, allowing time for us to nearly get to know them all in equal measure. Problematically for Sorcerer, however, is that none of the characters (save perhaps for Frenchie Victor Manzon) are hugely likeable (even Scheider’s character is a bit of douche most of the time), relying on the inherent tension of the moment to carry it through.
Yes, it takes a good while for the men to get to drivin’, and by then this film will have either won you or it will have failed. Perseverance pays off, because the latter half of Sorcerer is one of the ballsiest real-life action films you’re likely to see. Filmed for real in the Dominican Republic (although set in some portion of South America) and featuring some crazy, you’refreakingkiddingme stuntwork (some of which was performed by the actors themselves!), Sorcerer’s drive to survive is one hell of a gripping adventure. From massive fallen trees blocking the only passage, to bands of thieves trying to steal supplies from traveling vehicles, to the constant fear of having the trucks just explode instantly, the obstacles the four men must overcome in the pursuit of financial freedom are gargantuan. What boggles my mind is just how hard a shoot this must have been; some of this stuff looks to be Apocalypse Now-level intense. Frankly, I’m just surprised nobody was killed making this movie (unless somebody was, and my researched missed it!).
Sorcerer isn’t a film to be defined by its title (the title of the film is actually the name of one of the trucks used to transport the nitro), nor is it a film to be defined by its era. It’s a product of its era, sure, but overlooking some minor visual cues and the spectral score by Tangerine Dream (who also did a work-up on Ridley Scott’s Legend, replacing a score by Jerry Goldsmith!), Sorcerer is as good now as it was back then. The film does take some getting into, and the pieces of the jigsaw-plot feel a little frayed around the edges, but on the whole I rate this film as one of the better 70’s era action flicks I’ve seen to date. Worth a look to see what a dramatist like Friedkin can do with an out-and-out actioner. Hard as nails, frosty as ice, and tough as old leather, Sorcerer is recommended.