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Sorcerer

Year: 1977
Production Co: Film Properties International
Studio: Universal
Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Walon Green
Cast: Roy Scheider, Joe Spinell

I wonder how many people like me missed this film completely in cinemas (because we were too young to see it or because Star Wars came out right after it – both in my case) and subsequently sought it out because of the constant adulation from BBC critic Mark Kermode.

Like he does a lot of the time, he's convinced himself he's in love with this movie because he's so enamoured with its director William Friedkin – it's very much part of his brand that The Exorcist is his favourite movie. It's also not the first time I've fallen victim to his irrational devotion to a filmmaker's entire ouvre either. After trying to watch another Friedkin movie called Bug I got about 7/10 of the way through before turning it off.

I'd also spent the whole time up until watching Sorcerer imagining it was a cheesy horror/fantasy flick but no, the title comes from the name of a truck.

And here's the problem with it. The parts of the movie that are well made (where the characters try to move volatile material across an unforgiving Dominican Republic jungle) seem completely disconnected from the rest of the story. For what felt like the first hour I wondered what I was watching as some Palestinian terrorists blow up a shop in Jerusalem, a Frenchman realises what trouble he's in with creditors as a business deal falls apart, a hitman coldly and brutally dispatches a mark in Mexico and a mob robbery at a church in the grimy rustbelt of America ends up in a car accident.

The four disparate stories have nothing to do with each other and when it comes to the rest of the film they're completely superfulous, simply there to set up four characters. And because none of the introductory scenes contain any deep character-building, the same thing could have been achieved with a few lines of dialogue much later.

They don't know each other, they don't trust each other, they all have nefarious backgrounds and when they're asked to complete the central mission of the film, it somehow makes them the good guys and we end up rooting for them. Maybe that's the sleight of hand Kermode's so in love with.

Anyway, they've all run away from the law (or worse) to the same squalid mining operation in a small jungle township in Central America, and when local rebels bomb one of the oil wells, the owners realise the only way to shut it off is with a further explosion, and their only resource is four boxes of disused dynamite that have been kept in such bad condition they'll explode if they're merely bumped too hard.

There's no way to air freight such dangerous cargo, so they ask the miners for volunteers to drive the dynamite hundreds of miles across unfriendly terrain in return for a hefty bonus, and the four heroes saddle up.

Despite the narrative problems, some of the set pieces during the transport scenes are very well made cinema. The creaking ropes, cracking wood and yawing, pitching shadows of huge lumbering trucks on swaying rope bridges across a raging river in a torrential downpour are incredibly well shot, well edited and become very immersive. Another is the sequence where they decide to use some of their cargo to clear an enormous felled tree in their path, which reminded me of the robbery scene in Rififi – calm professionalism played out against absolute silence.

But no matter how beautiful a frame or how great the sound design they alone don't make a movie, and everything in it feels slightly disjointed from everything else that goes on. When we get barely any insight into who these men are other than the fact that they have shady pasts and have to trust each other, it's a bit like the thin characterisations in Chris Nolan's Dunkirk and renders the long introductory sequences even more redundant – why should we even care who they are? Sorcerer isn't about characters, it's about a quest no different from Star Wars, the movie that obliterated it at the box office.

There's a scene right at the climax that seems to depict hero Jackie (Schieder) losing his mind as he reaches his destination in a moonlike desert landscape of shadows and crags that comes kind of out of nowhere. A seed of him losing his temper in frustration at the obstacles in their path has been planted early on, but it's so overacted and blocked with such disconnected disinterest it will remind you of a little kid throwing toys because he's not allowed to watch TV.

There's been a lot of film theory and subtext ascribed to Sorcerer since its release, but I think that's just because it has a following that's grown over the years, no different from the grand sociopolitical themes we apply to Batman and Dawn of the Dead that their creators weren't even considering at the time.

I also think it has a following because the scenes of chaos in the jungle – especially with the bridge scenes that are so well shot – give it an Apocalypse Now kind of mystique about how difficult it must have been to do so well. unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily make a great movie.

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