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HAVE YOU HEARD OF… HIGH RISK (1981)

Our ‘Have You Heard Of…’ feature returns with Jonathon Dabell giving his verdict on High Risk (1981), a neglected but entertaining comedy-actioner starring James Brolin, Anthony Quinn, Lindsay Wagner and James Coburn.

British-born director Stewart Raffill (of The Wilderness Family, The Philadelphia Experiment and Mac And Me fame) once said of his 1981 action film High Risk: “There’s a lot of fun and light moments in High Risk. I see the film being in the Butch Cassidy mould. There’s humour but the danger – and the bullets – are real. Our heroes are not really competent enough to do what they do. They’re working class guys who gamble their all on a chance to make it rich and, as such, I feel that they will be that much more easily identifiable to our audiences. They are simply doing what we would all like to do – having an adventure that would make their dreams become reality.”

Ernest Borgnine shows the four adventurers some of the weaponry they may need for their little raid.

Ernest Borgnine shows the four adventurers some of the weaponry they may need for their little raid.

Raffill’s assessment of what makes High Risk appealing is pretty fair. The idea of being financially squeezed, struggling along in tough economic times – and taking extreme measures to improve your lot in life – is a wish-fulfilment fantasy that anyone in the audience can buy into. Of course, it helps too that a fine cast has been assembled to bring the story to life, incuding James Brolin, Lindsay Wagner, James Coburn, Bruce Davison, Cleavon Little and Anthony Quinn. Oh, and “Ernest Borgnine as Clint”, in one of those last-to-be-mentioned guest star roles which tell you the actor’s going to be in the film for a couple of minutes at most.
America is in the grip of an economic recession, so four regular guys with mounting debts decide it’s time to do something to improve their financial lot in life. The leader of the foursome – documentary film-maker Stone (Brolin) – was recently involved in the making of a film about drug cartels in South America. He knows that drug-lord Serrano (Coburn) has a huge fortune stashed in his safe in a closely guarded villa in South America. He persuades his friends Dan (Davison), Rockney (Little) and Tony (Chick Vennera) to fly with him south of the border, parachute into the jungle, and attempt a lightning-quick raid on Serrano’s villa.

Brolin, Vennera, Little and Davison hide beneath a staircase as they attempt their audacious robbery.

Brolin, Vennera, Little and Davison hide beneath a staircase as they attempt their audacious robbery.

The plan initially goes well, but the four hopelessly inexperienced desperadoes quickly bungle their attempted escape. They end up split into two groups – Stone and Ben try to make their way to the rendezvous point on foot, pursued by soldiers and bandits (led by Antony Quinn’s roguish Mariano); while Rockney and Tony are captured by Serrano, tortured, thrown into jail and eventually make an escape alongside fellow inmate, pot-smoking oddball Oli (Lindsay Wagner).
Eventually, all the intrepid adventurers reunite at a remote jungle airfield where they have arranged to be picked up. One last blazing gun battle stands between them, freedom and a $5 million fortune to live the rest of their days in comfort and joy.
I first came across High Risk as an impressionable 12-year-old whilst flicking through the Christmas TV schedules (9.30pm, 19th December 1988, according to the BBC Genome website). Bringing no prior knowledge or expectations to the film, I simply watched it on a whim… and was immediately taken by the nice balance of action, comedy and quirky characterisation. It took me many years to track down the film again, the first revisit being courtesy of a battered pre-cert VHS tape picked up cheap on Ebay, the second when it was released (with very poor sound and audio, it must be said) on DVD in the UK.

The adventurers, wounded and bloodied, with their new-found fortune.

The adventurers, wounded and bloodied, with their new-found fortune.

Revisiting the film as an adult left me less impressed than I’d been as a youth, but I still found it perfectly enjoyable and slick. The film’s simplistic approach, not to mention its rudimentary dialogue and character dynamics, make it little more than lightweight fluff. But fluff sometimes has its place… and this is good fluff, done with plenty of spirit and good-natured verve. I’d point to Raffill’s own comments about the film’s appeal hinging on the very ordinariness of its heroes – it is their lack of combat experience, their almost bungling attempts to carry out a life-changing robbery, which provides a lot of the enjoyment.
Brolin makes a stolid lead, but the supporting characters are quite colourful and engaging. Davison is perhaps the most ‘human’ and identifiable of the heroes, making him more endearing from the off. Also memorable is Quinn, who has great fun as the roguish bandit leader, tramping through the jungle with a merry band of desperadoes and ne’er-do-wells in tow.
High Risk is enjoyable if undemanding fare: fast, slick and lively. Watch with your brain in neutral and a fun time is guaranteed.

French poster for High Risk (1981)

French poster for High Risk (1981)

MoM Rating: 6/10

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