The Defiant Ones (1986)
Let’s get this out of the way first and foremost. Yes, there really is a remake of the 1958 racially charged film from director Stanley Kramer that pitted two convicts played by Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier against each other while in chains who must overcome their prejudices if they are to triumph both physically and in spirit.
For the television remake, two very likable actors have teamed up to both produce and star in this updated version of the Kramer film. It’s Robert Urich of Vegas and Spencer For Hire and Carl Weathers of Apollo Creed fame. The racial tone is set immediately following the opening credits when a gang of convicts are working the land. Weathers looking every inch the fighting Creed, runs afoul of Urich’s racial taunting and the pair launch into a wrestling match before being separated by shotgun wielding guards.
Enter Barry Corbin as the redneck warden who decides the pair, along with four others are to be shipped off to another state pen whose warden is much harsher on cons then he himself is. To inject some tension into the proceedings, Corbin maliciously handcuffs Urich and Weathers together for their journey. Not long after that, the transport truck crashes through a guard rail during a storm freeing the pair to begin their run to freedom if they can just call a truce long enough to accomplish it.
When Corbin arrives at the scene of the crash, he informs county sheriff Ed Lauter that two men are missing and the hunt is on. Lauter, long known to be a instigator of violence and taunting on screen actually has a solid role here as the sheriff who it seems has no racial issues of his own. He’s quick to realize that Corbin and his posse are more likely out to hunt down Weathers than they are Urich and sends them packing. That won’t stop Corbin from doing some hunting of his own behind Lauter’s back.
It’s Weathers and Urich that will rightly command most of the screen time as the drama plays itself out. Urich is quick with the racial slurs of the variety we are not likely to see on prime time television anymore. It’s Urich’s character that is going to have to realize he’ll need to get past his prejudices if he is to make his escape. He may even come to like and respect the man he is chained to.
Along the way, the pair will contend with swamps, rivers, dogs, and helicopters as they make there way across terrain that sure looks like the backdrop to the long running MASH on television. I can’t say for sure but those hills sure look the same as the ones Hawkeye and Trapper were nestled down in. Also in the mix comes help from a good Samaritan and in a scene played a little too fast and loose, the possibility of freedom from a trailer park cutie who has her eyes set on any man who happens upon her camp provided he’s white.
Enough about the plot as I am sure a good many of you have seen the Oscar winning original. If it weren’t for the fact that this film is under the long shadow of the ’58 film, it could stand up pretty well on it’s own for a mid 80’s network television feature. Most of that has to do with the leading performers. Urich’s career was mainly attached to the small screen and he does an admirable job here as the racially prejudiced convict chained to Weathers. I’ve always liked Carl Weathers on screen and welcomed him in roles outside of the Rocky saga. He is equally good here and turns in a well rounded performance. While Carl may have become an action hero of sorts with the disappointing Action Jackson, I had hoped that around this time he might have led a resurgence in Blaxploitation cinema but that time had long past. He also offered fine support in the film Death Hunt opposite two iconic cinema tough guys. Hey, how come he never turned up in that Expendable franchise?
Barry Corbin might not be a recognizable name but surely his face is. Corbin the actor excelled at red necks and played a few in Eastwood films during Clint’s country music years among others. It’s Ed Lauter that has long been one of my favorite character players from the 70’s and 80’s. Though he may not get much screen time in this outing, it’s a good departure from his bread and butter roles as an antagonist.
I saw this on network TV during it’s premiere and here I am all these years later re-watching it thanks to a double feature DVD release. I guess it’s time to revisit the original next.