Robert Duvall is framed and stuck in a Mexican hellhole prison on a murder charge, so his wife (Jill Ireland) turns to laidback pilot Charles Bronson to help spring him out. To do this he enlists the aid of right-hand man Hawk (Randy Quaid), floozy Sheree North (to provide a distraction), and a chopper pilot (Alan Vint). John Huston is Duvall’s grandfather, a corrupt millionaire businessman responsible for framing Duvall, who learned of his shonky ways and started to kick up some trouble that Huston couldn’t stand for. Roy Jenson turns up as North’s current squeeze, who doesn’t much like Bronson (who has a history with North).
Loosely based on a 1971 incident in the US, but also later the inspiration for a similar incident in Australia, this 1975 flick from director Tom Gries (“Will Penny”, “The Greatest”) is well-cast and particularly well-shot. However the supremely awful Jill Ireland sticking out like a sore thumb and rather boring villains are problematic. They hold the film back from being even more than it is, though only a tad. Yes, that includes John Huston, whose character gets forgotten about at the end. We needed at least one more scene with his character, but perhaps he had a plane to catch or something. He’s repeating his “Chinatown” performance from the previous year here, but with only slightly more than half the effort and effectiveness. He’s just OK.
Much better is Robert Duvall, who in playing this thing like a serious drama, sets himself apart from everyone else and walks off with the film. This guy is clearly going through a transformative experience in prison. Leading man Charles Bronson is relatively relaxed and likeable for a change in one of his better 70s performances (Even if the role could’ve just as easily been played by James Coburn, Joe Don Baker, or Steve McQueen). It’s a shame his wife Ireland is such a terrible actress and an odd duck of a woman, even wearing giant sunglasses and a bandana ensemble at one point. I’ve never found Ireland a good fit in a film, but here…wow. The supremely underrated Sheree North is in her trashy element here and a young Randy Quaid plays a thinner, lankier, and nerdier version of the redneck yokel he’s so good at. Quaid makes for the absolute ugliest woman you’ve ever seen, and gets all of the film’s few comedic moments.
The best element on show here is the widescreen cinematography by Lucien Ballard (“The Killing”, “Hour of the Gun”, “Will Penny”, “The Wild Bunch”), which is superlative for what is essentially a B-grade prison breakout film. The music score by Jerry Goldsmith (“The Omen”, “Planet of the Apes”) isn’t the great man’s finest work, but it’s solid and a little odd.
A solid prison break film and a pretty good Bronson vehicle, but a few elements hold this one back from being even more than it is. The screenplay is by Howard B. Kreitsek, Marc Norman (“Oklahoma Crude”, “The Killer Elite”, “Cutthroat Island”), and Elliott Baker (“A Fine Madness”).