In O. Henry’s classic short story “The Ransom of Red Chief,” two kidnappers find themselves snatching more than they can handle for ransom, and the kid ends up being such a pain that they end up paying his parents to take him off their hands. It’s a funny story and one that’s been adapted for the screen countless times, including as something of a standard for children’s television. Cohen and Tate is not an official adaptation of O. Henry’s story, and in fact doesn’t take much at all from it except for the idea of two criminals having a more difficult time than expected in kidnapping a child, but it makes a good introduction to a movie that is in all likelihood a pretty bitter pill for all but the most hard-boiled crime aficionados.

Cohen and Tate might or might not have been inspired by the famous O. Henry tale, but tonally and structurally it’s closer to the Mario Bava thriller Rabid Dogs. Like that film, Cohen and Tate takes the form of a long, difficult road trip for the titular criminals and their victim, and also like that film, it’s a completely unsparing masterwork of tension designed to keep you on edge with little if any comic relief, or any relief for that matter.

The film opens with a brief text prologue that explains that 9-year-old Travis Knight (a precocious but not implausibly so Harley Cross) has witnessed the killing of a mob figure in Texas. He and his family have been moved to rural Oklahoma under federal protection, but the mob wants to interrogate him to find out who the culprit may have been (the logic of such a plan is not questioned, nor does it play any important part in the plot). The violence kicks off almost immediately, albeit after a slow, somewhat Sergio Leonesque build-up in the family’s new home, which is probably not by coincidence very reminiscent of the doomed McBain family home in Once Upon a Time in the West, and it is here where we are introduced to Cohen and Tate, the two mob contractors enlisted to kill the kid’s parents and bring him back to Houston.

As characters, Cohen and Tate are in some ways stock crime story types: the ice cold professional and the hothead psycho. The former is Cohen, played by Roy Scheider, while the latter is Adam Baldwin’s unnervingly unstable Tate, a textbook danger to himself and others. Scheider played some of the most quietly charming characters of 70s cinema in films like Jaws and The French Connection, but here he’s aged into an old pro who in his own way is just as ruthless as Tate, and it’s to the movie’s credit that it doesn’t call upon any of Scheider’s charm, humor, or charisma to earn audience sympathy. Instead, he only seems reasonable compared to Baldwin’s sadistic, kill-crazy psychopath, and a large portion of the film’s considerable suspense is generated from wondering which of these two guys will ultimately decide what happens to the boy.

It is here where we can see how truly nasty the heart of Cohen and Tate really is, since Cohen seems to have no feeling at all for the job he’s been hired to do. In one chilling sequence, Travis asks Cohen if the people he’s being taken to will kill him after they talk to him and Cohen, rather than lie to the child as would seem most prudent, just answers: “probably, yes.” That simple, laconic nihilism has powered thousands of crime stories but it still feels especially undiluted here.

Scheider is a great actor who’s anchored some of the greatest American films ever made, so it’s no surprise to see him turn in another captivating performance here, but Baldwin is absolutely revelatory as Tate. I admit I don’t know much about Baldwin’s other work, but in Cohen and Tate he has a truly unpredictable, scary energy that at times becomes almost unbearable to watch. He and Scheider make a great pair precisely because they are not a great pair, they don’t like each other and aren’t really able to work very well together either, and it’s the tension between them that gives Travis just enough of a chance to survive this road trip to make things interesting.

It should be noted that despite the possible O. Henry inspiration and his various clever escape attempts notwithstanding, Travis doesn’t seem to generate more than his share of problems for the two hitmen, who seem to have a more difficult time dealing with one another. The root of their conflict is Cohen’s commitment to bringing the kid in as promised vs Tate’s desire to kill him and get it over with, particularly after they hear a report on the radio that the child’s father did not in fact die and that he was able to pass their description on to the authorities. Professionalism vs sadism and honor vs saving your own skin are the central themes of Cohen and Tate, even as it does a good job making both choices seem pretty unappealing in their own ways.

Cohen and Tate is also a great road trip movie, albeit an unorthodox one. It somehow paradoxically captures the feeling of driving on some rural highway in the dead of night while fighting sleep perfectly without ever letting up on the tension, and I loved its inexpensive process shots of distant lights in the night sky moving across the car windows slowly, not quite looking real but not quite looking fake either, a mesmeric effect that I don’t think I’ve seen in another movie.

It all works exquisitely as a piece of violent, nasty suspense, leading to an ending that is as scary and bleak as real life and which I won’t even consider spoiling here.

Cohen and Tate is not quite a horror movie but it does have a modicum of horror movie energy in its gruesome climax, which borrows from sources as disparate as Wait Until Dark and The Terminator. The entire thing has an uncompromised and unadulterated mean streak that never seems to tip over into empty shock value, and even though it was possibly too much for mainstream audiences (and remains so), it’s a pleasantly nasty yarn for those who have acquired the taste.

Box Office Mojo reports that Cohen and Tate made less than $46,000 (!!) on its opening weekend in 1989, and has remained a pretty buried gem in the decades since. Maybe it really is simply too strong for general audiences, and as mainstream entertainment has grown ever more conservative and moralistic its appeal has possibly diminished even more. But if you’re the kind of person who appreciates the dark, disturbing, cynical side of crime fiction (and if you can forgive me for lapsing into phony blurb-crit speak), it’s a ride well worth taking.

Joseph Gibson is transmitting his possibly over-enthusiastic opinions from Austin, TX. His pieces for NeoText focus on the work of underappreciated genre film auteurs. Turn-ons include elaborate shoot-outs, dangerous stunts, and unexpected needle drops, while some of his turn-offs are overlong streaming series, bad comic relief, and redeeming social value.