Sorcerer (1977) is director William Friedkin's followup to the one-two knockout punch of The French Connection and The Exorcist. A remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (itself a masterpiece), the film tells the tale of how four different men come together in a South American country to transport unstable nitroglycerin more than 100 miles over harsh jungle terrain.
They are Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider), a small-time American mobster hiding out after a robbery gone wrong; Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), a Parisian escaping fraud charges; Nilo (Francisco Rabal), a mysterious hitman who's just completed a job; and Kassem (Amidou), a Palestinian bomber. For the chance of a huge payoff and possibly leaving their squalid surroundings, they will haul their dangerous cargo through nearly impassible forests, over rickety bridges and steep cliffs, and past armed rebels to an American company's burning oil rig, knowing that at anytime the slightest bump could result in an explosion.
Both the original and this version are about death and fate. Chance brings these men together, and a random opportunity arrives for them to get out of the holes they've found themselves in, but at every turn, death hangs over them. It can come at anytime, and it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done, eventually, death will claim you. These men demonstrated skill and cunning to get hired, but mostly luck gets them through their task.
Friedkin's version revels in the grueling physical details of the expedition: the sweat, mud, rain, and toil. As their journey continues, the men look more and more exhausted as their spirits and energy are sapped. When the men drive their trucks across a flooded, swaying bridge as the suspension ropes begin to snap, the planks crack under the wheels, and rain and water pound them, it feels palpable.
One of the big differences between the remake and the original is Friedkin's decision to show the backgrounds of the main characters. We witness Nilo killing a man, Kassem planting a bomb in Israel, Mazon realizing his company is collapsing, and Scanlon robbing a church and subsequently seeing his gang wiped out in a car crash. Clouzot deliberately left the histories of his quartet vague; all you know about them is they had the bad luck to end up in the same dead-end country. While Clouzot's story is more economical, Friedkin compensates because those backgrounds are fascinating, so even though the first 20 minutes or so is just showing what brings them together, it doesn't feel like filler.
Maybe I was spoiled by Clouzot's original, but I can't quite get behind Sorcerer. It's make with undeniable skill, and I imagine anyone watching this one without having seen The Wages of Fear will be thrilled, but that version was superior. I don't intend to decry Friedkin's version an unnecessary remake. It's well made, and several sequences are suspenseful, but in original, I felt uneasy the entire time, expecting an explosion. Here, the element of surprise had faded.