You can tell this movie was made in the seventies. Not only by the horrible clothing, hair, and key plot moments revolving around The Rolling Stones, either. There's a sort of touching faith that the audience will be willing to sit through what seems like an eternity of seemingly meaningless footage waiting for the plot to actually kick in. It's all clearly setting something up, but what exactly that is remains a complete mystery.
Then again, this might not have seemed quite so deadly had I actually bothered to read the back of the box. Audiences at the time had likely been aware of at least the bare bones of the plot before going in. All I had was the video box cover, which makes the film look like a psychedelic Western. Nevertheless, even armed with the knowledge that the main character is going to make himself a nuclear bomb and terrorize the police force with it, it would be hard to concentrate on the thrilling spectacle of the lead playing with a stray cat backed by amazingly generic seventies theme music. Even a fairly tense bus hijack, where the lead first meets the policeman who becomes his rival, fails to really involve us. It's obviously not the point. It's going nowhere.
The film really kicks to life when he finally gets around to stealing some plutonium. The robbery is filmed almost entirely in La Jetée-like still images, edited to a rather good bit of theme music and interspersed with well time bursts of motion. It was enough to make me hold off on punching the eject button and wait around for the rest of them film, which quickly turned out to be pretty good.
But not until after an amazingly long montage of him making the bomb. There's a certain pornographic excitement to watching people sweat while doing incomprehensible scientific procedures, but the editing here isn't quite slick enough to make this compelling. The bit with the cat plays off pretty nicely in here, and there are a few other half-hearted attempts to inject the bit with tension. It's pretty clear, however, that the movie isn't really going to start until he has the bomb. In fact, when he finishes the bomb and starts dancing for joy around the room, it's like the film has come to life, thrown back the covers and gone leaping off down the halls of narrative pacing.
The bomb constructed, the movie changes gears into a deftly plotted cat and mouse game. The man makes bizarre demands on the government (like pulling all advertisements from the baseball games) and the government is forced to comply. There's no thrills her you won't find in any first rate American action film of the same time period, but the originality in the plotting is more than enough to compensate for the rather gratingly performance by the female lead. She's so chirpy she set my teeth on edge.
It's easy to see why this ended up being viewed as something of a classic, and why it was remastered and rereleased a few years ago. It manages to deftly play off societal fears of the age, and yet still play well to a modern audience. It's unpredictable, and manages the nifty trick of doing exactly what you want it to do while still surprising you when it does. I spent the last half hour convinced they were going to blow the ending... but the ending makes it something of a masterpiece.