Aaah, the 70s, a time when Hollywood was run by the artists, the visionaries, the film buffs who took their childhood love of classic Hollywood, combined it with their young adult obsessions with the gritty French new wave, and gave us the film school brats era that redefined movie making. There was Francis Ford Coppola with the first two Godfathers, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. Martin Scorsese delivered Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Michael Cimino blew everyone away with The Deer Hunter. And William Friedkin had the one-two punch of The French Connection and The Exorcist.
Then, a couple of things happened. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas invented the blockbuster with Jaws and Star Wars respectively. And the rest of the film school brats started to believe a little too much of their own hype. Getting overly ambitious, overly pretentious, overly coked up, or usually, a combination of all three. In the next few years, we got Coppola’s One From the Heart, Scorsese’s New York New York, and the overly ambitious flop that would go down in infamy as the definition of overly ambitious flop, Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. But before Cimino set the still unequalled high watermark of shit bomb in 1980, Friedkin was the holder of that title, with Sorcerer.
Nilo (Francisco Rabal) executes someone in Mexico and has to go on the run. Kassem (Amidou) gets caught up in some terrorist strife in Israel and has to go on the run. Victor (Bruno Cremer) is about to be exposed for some pretty serious embezzlement in Paris and has to go on the run. Jackie (Roy Scheider) takes part in a botched robbery of the mob in New Jersey and has to go on the run. They all end up in Porvenir, South America. The last refuge of desperate souls, trying to escape their past.
Needing money and legitimate residency, all four take on a job that means almost certain death, transporting two trucks of nitro glycerine more than 200km across rugged, South American jungle terrain. But this isn’t regular nitro glycerine, this is sweaty nitro glycerine. And as we all learned from Burt Lancaster in The Professionals, sweaty nitro glycerine is likely to go the fuck off at the slightest bump or jiggle.
From the first moment until the end credits, Sorcerer had me asking one question, how was this movie a flop? With the opening montage of the main quartet all making their mistakes in exotic international locations… And New Jersey… To the grimey streets of Porvenir, to the nail biting truck journey, to the gut punch ending, I loved everything about Sorcerer.
All I knew about this movie before watching was the basic nr glycerine transportation plot, but that doesn’t even get introduced until about half way. The set up for all of that was a great surprise that made my almost forget about the impending truck trip until it was finally introduced. Then once it’s there, the convoy portion is even more amazing than everything that comes before it.
What really amazed me is the way Friedkin turns the two trucks into living, breathing characters. One has weird bonnet scoops that almost look like the spikes on a dragon’s tail. The lights and grills look like demonic eyes and teeth. The exhausts have been mounted at the front, so they breathe smoke. They even have names, so in my head as I watched, I never thought of them as “Jackie’s Truck” and “Victor’s Truck”, they were “Sorcerer” and “Lazaro”.
And then there’s the legendary rope bridge crossing. Mentioning the sequence exists isn’t spoiling anything, it’s been the main image on every poster and DVD cover since the movie was released. Apparently it took a month to film this 10 minutes or so of screen time, and I believe it. It’s so visceral, so real, so anxious and dangerous. While it in no way drags or loses any of its incredible tension, I could see every second of that 30 days of shooting on the screen.
Friedkin really suffered after making Sorcerer. He’d gone from being one of the leading directors of his generation, to floundering for pretty much the rest of his career. Even when his move Killer Joe got a lo of critical buzz a couple years ago, the focus was always on Matthew McConaughey’s performance, rather than Friedkin’s direction. Apparently audiences at the time felt ripped off by the opening, subtitles scenes in Sorcerer, felling like they’d been tricked into watching a foreign film.
But I have to assume the blame should really fall on the title. “Sorcerer” is obviously going to invoke images of fantasy, fairy tales and fable fuelled bull shit. Images that couldn’t be further away from everything that’s awesome about this movie. Like pretty much every flop from Friedkin’s, Sorcerer has definitely built in admiration in the years since its initial failure, but it still deserves more. Watch this movie, because you’ll love this movie.