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.