The Best Movies You've Never Seen About Bounty Hunters

(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week we take inspiration from a new streaming series that everyone's talking about and explore some under-seen and under-loved tales about bounty hunters.)

The odds are pretty good that you've heard about the new Disney+ series The Mandalorian by now. It's about a guy who wears a helmet to work only to discover that the helmet is actually wearing him. Heavy, right? He's a bounty hunter tasked with bringing in certain beings, dead or alive, but he grows a conscience when asked to kill...something. I don't know, I've only seen vague tweets so far, but the point is that it's not easy being a bounty hunter.

It's a perfectly legal career built on committing violent abductions for money, and that's a character trait tailor made for the screen. The movies have embraced tales about bounty hunters over the years starting with westerns before moving into more modern crime stories and beyond, and while the character has become a character type it's also resulted in movies ranging from great ones like Midnight Run (1988), True Grit (1969/2010), and Slow West (2015) to fun ones like Trancers (1985) and Wanted: Dead or Alive (1986).

Of course, there are some that fall into those two categories that have also fallen between the cracks, and that's where this column comes in – keep reading for the best movies you've never seen about bounty hunters!

Santee (1973)

Jody returns home after years away to reunite with his father in America's expansive western territory, but he learns fairly quickly that his father has joined a criminal gang and a famed bounty hunter named Santee (Glenn Ford) is hunting them down one by one. Jody vows revenge after Santee kills his father, but attitudes change when the older man welcomes the younger into his family. Which way will Jody shoot when another gang comes calling for Santee?

Justice, honor, and revenge are common threads in western tales, and all three are woven through this confident film. A bigger theme, though, is the familial connection between father and son in the form of a variation on the nature/nurture concept. Jody's biological father is bad news while Santee shows the young man respect, care, and a growing love by welcoming him into his and his wife's home. The question becomes is that enough to overcome the boy's connection to his blood, and the journey to that answer is an engaging one leading to an emotional ending (and a final reveal that is drawn out for an impressively long time).

It's a good movie deserving of more fans, but the film's bigger claim to fame is that it's one of – if not the – first movies to be shot on videotape. They transferred it to 35mm for its theatrical run, but its origin on what amounts to a TV camera has probably hurt its reputation over the years as it doesn't look as grand as its true "film" cousins. Director Gary Nelson went on to direct far more recognizable fare with Freaky Friday (1976) and The Black Hole (1979), but fans of westerns, Glenn Ford, and stories about morality and regret should seek this one out too.

Santee is currently available on DVD.


The Glove (1979)

It's nighttime in the city, and a big man (Rosey Grier – he's Pam's cousin!) wearing body armor, a motorcycle helmet, and an off-brand Power Glove is on the hunt. His targets are prison guards, and when he finds them he beats the crap out of them. He also tears apart cars if the situation calls for it or if they get in his way. Sam (John Saxon) is a bounty hunter used to tracking and catching normal bad guys, but when he's unofficially offered a big chunk of change to catch this glove-wearing psycho he jumps at the chance.

The setup to Ross Hagen's action/crime flick suggests a lean into sci-fi/horror, but the developing thread makes it more of a social thriller as the killer's motivation comes to light. Victor (Grier) is the man's name, and his string of assaults and murders are a response to the abuse he and others suffered in prison at the hands of cruel and corrupt guards. The glove in question was initially designed for police to quell and squash rioters, but the penal system added it to their arsenal to help keep prisoners in line which quickly led to extreme abuses. This revelation leads Sam into a moral quandary as he might no longer see Victor as the bad guy.

It's a solid little genre tale, but Saxon comes out the strongest here with a performance that's charismatic, engaging, and fun. Sam is the kind of character deserving of his own franchise or television series as he's a nice, capable, single father whose job continually brings him in contact with really bad dudes. Hell, if The Fall Guy could get five seasons The Bail Guy could have lasted three. He's an ex-cop and an ex-baseball player, and Saxon has rarely been gifted such a likable lead character. Sam narrates through a good chunk of the film too, and while that hardly ever works elsewhere, Saxon's delivery and demeanor gives the exposition a casually entertaining feel.

The Glove is currently available on DVD as a double feature with 1979's Search and Destroy.


The Hunter (1980)

Ralph "Papa" Thorson (Steve McQueen) belongs to a specialized breed of people more at home in the wild west than the modern world. He's a bounty hunter, and while most of the bail-jumpers he catches are relatively harmless more than a few of them pose a real threat. A sheriff's nephew tries to kill him in Houston, a pair of crazy brothers in Nebraska try to blow him up, and a vengeful past capture is threatening Papa's pregnant girlfriend back in Los Angeles. Maybe this still is the wild west after all.

This somewhat lighthearted thriller was my first Steve McQueen movie – and Steve McQueen's last as he died three months after it opened in theaters – and while it's slight compared to some of the actor's most memorable films it remains a favorite. The action beats are entertaining with some gun play, a pretty thrilling foot chase, a sequence pitting a Trans Am against a farming combine, and more. It has an episodic structure as Papa goes after new bail jumpers, but the dark thread running through it involving the dangers of the job and the psycho stalking him add an edge to the entertainment.

My nostalgia aside, the film is a fun action/drama with real heart. Papa was a real man – he was killed in 1995 by a car bomb – and McQueen, who previously played a bounty hunter in TV's Wanted Dead or Alive (1958-1961), captures him with a balance between grumpiness and warmth. His house is filled with human strays collected over his years of dealing with otherwise good people who've ran afoul of the law, and that includes a young LeVar Burton who he welcomes into the fold once he's served any time he has coming. Unrelated, but the film features three gay characters too, and while they're minor roles none of them are portrayed as punchlines which is surprising for a film from 1980. There's enough danger to make for some thrilling sequences here, but the overall feeling is one that values kindness, companionship, and friendship.

The Hunter is currently available to stream.

Space Adventure Cobra (1982)

Jane Flower is one of the galaxy's best bounty hunters, and she proves it right off the bat by decapitating a violent thug and taking his head in for payment. She's double-crossed by the authorities just as she crosses paths with the most wanted man around, Cobra, and together they head out on an adventure pitting them against aliens, the mafia, and the limits of love itself.

As the pic above probably gives away, this is an anime flick, but a bounty hunter is a bounty hunter no matter how many times she decides to strip down past her skivvies. (I did mention this is an anime, right?) This is far more than a T&A romp, though, as that aspect of it all is pretty tame while the film instead devotes time to a big, twisted, wonderfully ridiculous plot involving lost sisters, man-made stars, Stockholm Syndrome, true love, snow gorillas, the Space Mafia Guild, and more. It's silly at times and deadly serious at others, and the visuals run the gamut from trippy to action-packed.

I do feel obligated to point out one thing that might constitute a spoiler, but seeing as this is a list about bounty hunter movies you should probably know that Jane – the bounty hunter – dies before the halfway mark. Surprise! The adventure continues without her, though, and while she remains in spirit (and in the form of her two sisters who share her love of laying around sans clothing) it could be argued that Cobra takes up her mantle and continues the good fight as a bounty hunter of love?

Space Adventure Cobra is available to stream and on Blu-ray/DVD/4K UltraHD.


Bounty Killer (2013)

Years have passed since corporations took complete control of the world leading to war, recession, and the end of life as we know it. The people eventually rise up and form an organization with a single goal – justice against the white collar pricks whose greed nearly destroyed humanity. Their weapon of choice? Bounty killers who've become the new celebrity as they mow down corporate fat heads for cash money.

This is an indie action film, through and through, but the amount of fun and entertainment value jammed into its ninety-minute running time is impressive. It's a post-apocalyptic romp complete with competing professionals, a free-wheeling army of rogue Juggalos, a Winnebego-led chase across an unforgiving desert, and lots of bloody conflicts. Sure, the budget results in some iffy CG at times, but the film's ingenuity and energy make it a ride worth joining.

There's a clear Mad Max element to its antics, but while it never reaches the highs of George Miller's epic franchise it finds its own fun through cool fight scenes, big stunts, and bounty hunters who deliver justice in individual ways. Some are loud and bloody, others are slick and bloody, and a few are just bloody, but they're all having a blast punishing the 1% and offering entertaining catharsis to the rest of us.

Bounty Killer is available to stream and on Blu-ray/DVD.


The Head Hunter (2018)

There may not have been utensils in medieval times, but there were burly men in bulky armor killing big monsters. At least, that's the premise here as an unnamed hero sits alone in his hovel awaiting the call of the horn blown by a populace that prefers to pay him to do their bidding rather than do it themselves. His walls are adorned with the heads of beasts, but the one he wants most, the one that slaughtered his daughter, has eluded him... until now.

Much has been made of this film's $30k budget, and deservedly so as the movie feels far more atmospheric than you'd expect for that amount. We move mostly between the dimly lit insides of the man's shack and the haunting landscape surrounding it, and both give a sense of isolation and stark beauty. Exteriors were filmed in Portugal, the costume/set design are rugged and believable, and the loneliness of this long-distance monster killer is palpable.

The catch here, and the reason why the movie won't work for some of you, is that the vast majority of the action occurs off screen. It's a budgetary decision that gives the film a minimalist, dreamlike feel as the hero wakes, suits up, and heads out to battles we never see before returning with another monster's head. That formula changes up some in the third act, but it's still far from the creature feature or action romp you might be expecting. It works as its own thing and lands with an emotional punch, though, and if you can handle it that's enough to make this a movie to watch out for.

The Head Hunter is available to stream and on DVD.

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