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.

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