Believe it or not, there was a time when a lead­ing man could be push­ing AARP age and still get prime roles in com­mer­cial gen­re films.  In con­trast to the youth-dri­ven mania of today’s Hollywood cast­ing, it was actu­al­ly con­sid­ered cool to have old­er stars in your action films.  Their pres­ence could lend a grav­i­tas that would prop up the whole enter­prise.  This is done every now and then today — Taken is prob­a­bly the best recent exam­ple, which used Liam Neeson as its core of grav­i­tas — but its become rar­er as Hollywood aggres­sive­ly nar­row­casts its pro­duct towards teenagers.

Thankfully, it was a dif­fer­ent sto­ry in the 1970’s.  For a strong exam­ple of a good gen­re pic from this era anchored by old­er lead­ing men, one need look no fur­ther than Sky Riders.  This taut, engag­ing blend of hostage thriller and action flick boast­ed not one but two icon­ic aged-macho pres­ences to dri­ve it: James Coburn and Robert Culp.  Both men were only a few years shy of fifty when they made it — and the fact that they look and act like men who have actu­al­ly lived a life give the pro­ceed­ings a sub­tly reas­sur­ing lift.

Sky Riders hits the ground run­ning: Greece-based busi­ness­man Jonas Bracken (Culp) has only just left his home for the day when it is sud­den­ly invad­ed by masked ter­ror­ists who kill the staff before kid­nap­ping his chil­dren and his wife Ellen (Susannah York).  Jonas is soon con­tact­ed by the ter­ror­ists’ lead­er (Werner Pochath) and informed that he is expect­ed to pur­chase them five mil­lion dol­lars’ worth of weapons to aid their cause.  While Jonas works on the mon­ey, local police Inspector Nikolaidis (Charles Aznavour) tries to track the ter­ror­ists but is stymied at every turn.

However, Jonas has one ace in the hole that the ter­ror­ists don’t know about — Jim McCabe (Coburn), a pro­fes­sion­al adven­tur­er and the for­mer hus­band of his wife.  It just so hap­pens that one of the chil­dren kid­napped is Jim’s so he has an added lev­el of per­son­al invest­ment.  He uses his skills to deter­mine the loca­tion of the ter­ror­ist hide­out, which is high atop a remote, most­ly inac­ces­si­ble moun­tain peak.  Knowing he will need spe­cial help to enact a res­cue plan, he enlists the aid of a team of hang-glid­ing stunt fly­ers led by the free­wheel­ing Ben (John Beck) and the dead­ly game is on…

Sky Riders is a for­mu­la piece but it’s a damned good one because it is an all-busi­ness affair.  The taut script by Jack DeWitt, Greg McGillivray, Stanley Mann and Garry Michael White moves for­ward with clock­work pre­ci­sion: the first half hour is devot­ed to the set­ting up the hostage sce­nar­io, the sec­ond half hour deliv­ers all the nec­es­sary plot com­pli­ca­tions and the final half-hour is a white-knuck­le affair devot­ed to McCabe’s res­cue plan.  Characterization and dia­logue are inter­est­ing but deliv­ered in lean, to-the-point dra­mat­ic beats that don’t inter­fere with the plot’s for­ward dri­ve.

The film fur­ther ben­e­fits from con­fi­dent direc­tion by Douglas Hickox, a gift­ed English jour­ney­man who also direct­ed the Vincent Price cult fave Theater Of Death.  His direc­tion is brisk and visu­al­ly expres­sive with­out over­do­ing the styl­is­tic flour­ish­es and he gets strong but ground­ed per­for­mances from his cast.  Hickox also goes full-tilt for the spec­ta­cle nec­es­sary to sell the film’s air-raid finale.  The stunt are beau­ti­ful­ly chore­o­graphed and cap­tured in a  breath­tak­ing man­ner by aeri­al direc­tor Jim Freeman.  The film’s excit­ing sense of sweep is sealed by a nov­el musi­cal score from Lalo Schifrin that blends tra­di­tion­al adven­ture themes with Greek folk instru­men­ta­tion, an approach he’d return to a few years lat­er with Escape To Athena.

However, what tru­ly anchors Sky Riders is the pair­ing of Coburn and Culp.  The two play shad­ow and light ver­sions of each oth­er: Coburn is the brash dare­dev­il who secret­ly craves the warmth of a fam­i­ly life he can nev­er have while Culp is the respon­si­ble fam­i­ly man who can draw on an inner tough­ness when the pres­sure hits.  Each one brings an effort­less­ly con­vinc­ing world-weari­ness to his part, doing charis­mat­ic work with­out ever over­do­ing it.  Culp is the sub­tler of the two by nature but Coburn deft­ly under­plays a num­ber of key moments, often draw­ing on his knack for dead­pan line read­ings.  Both men are a ton of fun to watch, espe­cial­ly when they’re shar­ing the screen, and they give Sky Riders the x-fac­tor it needs to go from good to great enter­tain­ment.