"Death Hunt" appeared to have the makings of a superior adventure movie: Lee Marvin as a hard-bitten Mountie leading a search party across the Canadian Rockies in pursuit of Charles Bronson as a hard-bitten trapper accused of murder.
Sounds hard to mess up, but "Death Hunt" is so unconvincing that you never once stop asking yourself, "Why is this manhunt necessary?" Supposedly inspired by an authentic incident in the Northwest Territories 50 years ago, the movie emerges as an exercise in bogus historical evocation, minimal characterization and synthetic conflict.
The Bronson character is introduced in teasing bits and pieces, the camera fixated on his horse's hooves, his mittens, the back of his parka. Bronson finally emerges from this sputtering visual fanfare to rescue a dog, the loser in a vicious dogfight being staged for the sporting interest of a small circle of trappers. The poor mutt belongs to Ed Lauter, a trapper who hates Bronson instantly for butting in. As a matter of fact, the intervention looks a bit abrupt and dubious, and Bronson is so taciturn that he doesn't even develop much of a relationship with the dog, which is shot to death a few scenes later when Lauter and his cronies pay an unfriendly call on the good Samaritan.
During the ensuing volley Bronson kills one of the trespassers, causing the lawless Lauter to retreat screaming for the Mounties. Having no use for nasty crybabies or pointless violence, Marvin is on the verge of talking Bronson into a peaceable hearing that would no doubt end the movie about 90 minutes early. Since they lack a shrewder pretext, the writers show Marvin the peacemaker being strangely careless enough to deputize the Lauter gang; when one of them begins firing at Bronson in midpowwow, the feud is on again. A day's siege leaves Bronson's cabin in smoldering ruins and several posse members dead. The irked Marvin heads back to town to organize a bigger posse to chase the slippery Bronson, and the new contingent proves about as successful as the first.
There's plenty of secondary acting support: Carl Weathers and Andrew Stevens as Marvin's comrades, Henry Beckman as a sinister old trapper in mercenary business for himself and Angie Dickinson as romantic baggage. The director, Peter Hunt, has always seemed an underutilized action specialist. The editor and second-unit director of the first five James Bond films, he made a sensational directing debut on the sixth, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," but over the next decade only two of his projects -- the entertaining "Gold" with Roger Moore and the laborious "Shout at the Devil" with Moore and Marvin -- reached the screen.
Hunt makes no apparent effort to escape the shambling, perfunctory scenario contributed by Michael Grais and Mark Victor, a novice American screen-writing team that prepared on episodes of "Kojak" and "Starsky and Hutch" -- not exactly the best available training ground for sustained narrative.
The screen-writers flatter themselves that they're masters of the subplot and historical resonance too. Every so often you're reminded that Stevens, the fresh-faced Mountie, is supposed to be undergoing an appalling rite of passage or that civilization is closing in on honorable western loners like Marvin and Bronson. These supplementary "themes" are as inadequate as the fundamental chase story.