Director William A. Graham, who worked with Elvis Presley on Change of Habit (1969) — and too many TV series to mention (but we’ll mention Trapped Beneath the Sea (1974) and Beyond the Bermuda Triangle (1975) and the excellent, 1977 Frank Sinatra-starrer, Contract on Cherry Street) knocks it out of the park . . . er, sky, as it were . . . with a stellar debut script by Robert Boris (who nailed it with his second script, 1973’s Electra Glide in Blue) in a tale about a troubled, ex-war helicopter pilot who fights his person demons by stopping a bank robbery.
The always likable and reliable and David Janssen (Moon of the Wolf, the must-see submarine romp Fer-de-lance) stars as Harry “Smiling Jack” Walker: a highly regarded pilot and traffic reporter for Salt Lake City, Utah’s KBEX Radio. As part of his celebrity, Walker will display his fully restored P-40 Warhawk — the same plane he flew during WW II as a member of the Flying Tigers — to promote his station’s “throwback weekend” of playing WW II era big band standards of the 1940s. (Janssen, a skilled pilot in his own right, did most of his own flying, which only adds to the film thrilling realism.)
As the film opens, we see Walker’s “war flashback” (courtesy of the 1942 war film, The Flying Tigers) as he tows the plane — causing his own, ironic traffic jam — to the station. Courtesy of a smart script by Robert Boris (who also gave us the 1982 Richard Pryor entry Some Kind of Hero and the 1983 Dan Aykroyd vehicle, Doctor Detroit), the plane serves as a metaphor: Walker is as outdated as his plane. To that end, his old war pilot buddy, Jim McAndrew (the always on-point Ralph Meeker), now himself an outdated and desked cop, urges Walker to quit the bitching about the “glory days” and live in the now.
The “Dirty Harry” catalyst (if not made by CBS-TV, this would have made for a great Clint Eastwood theatrical vehicle) for Walker to get off his duff is a daylight bank robbery by two ex-Vietnam Marines using weapons stolen from Salt Lake City’s National Guard Armory. Warning the highway denizens below of the police pursuit, Walker takes it upon himself to begin an aerial pursuit of the robbers, communicating with McAndrew the details about the car — and their female teller hostage.
Now, you’d think a helicopter following a car would be boring . . . think again. Thanks to Walker’s ex-war piloting skills, our ersatz Harry Callahan pilots the chopper just over the getaway car’s roof, ripping between buildings, down city streets and under underpasses.
Now, just when you think the helicopter chasing the car gets boring . . . the robbers have their own “getaway” helicopter perched on top of a parking garage. Now, the chase takes to the skies over the Utah deserts and mountain ranges. And Walker’s running out of gas . . . living life by the seat of his flying pants, as he recaptures his “glory days” one last time.
A rating winner when it aired on January 30, 1973, CBS-TV, in conjunction with Warner Bros. (Clint’s old studio; so why didn’t Eastwood do this?), successfully marketed the $400,000 film throughout Europe and the Pacific Rim to box office gold. Of course, when the home video era arrived, Prism Entertainment released it in 1985, while VCI Entertainment picked it up for its 2007 DVD release.
Go VHS retro. Get the DVD. Stream it. However you do it: Watch this movie. Team it up with the car-on-car chase flick Vanishing Point (1971) for a great double feature. Want to go for a triple (or a TV movie double): check out another Vietnam war ex-chopper pilot who’s called into action to safe the day with Bernard Kowalski’s Terror in the Sky (1971).
Sure, David Janssen was no Clint Eastwood or Charlton Heston (I watched Chuck in Two Minute Warning (1976) this week; Janssen would have been great in that film, as Chuck, here) meant for leading man roles U.S. big screens, but when it came to carrying films on the small screen, no one did it better than David Janssen. Nobody.
Be sure to check out our last “TV Week” of reviews concerned with action and terror in the skies with our “Airline Disasters TV Movie Round-Up” featurette.
— R.D Francis writes for B&S About Movies.