When three disgruntled Vietnam vets rob Zion’s Bank in downtown Salt Lake City and take a bank teller (Elayne Heilveil) hostage, they’re spotted by traffic reporter Harry Walker (David Janssen). A World War II vet who is going through a mid-life crisis and who feels unappreciated by the country that he risked his life to defend, Harry chases after the robbers in his helicopter. With Harry’s help, the police corner the robbers on the roof of a parking garage.
That’s when they discover that the robbers have a helicopter of their own! After abandoning their car, the robbers and their hostage take off in their helicopter, heading into the Oquirrh Mountains. Though he’s running low on fuel and has been ordered to back off by Police Captain Jim McAndrew (Ralph Meeker), Harry continues to pursue the other helicopter into the wilderness.
A made-for-TV movie from 1973, Birds of Prey is a chase movie, with the usual cars replaced by helicopters. What makes this movie so exciting is that it was directed in the days before CGI so, when you watch the two helicopters dangerously pursuing each other over Salt Lake City and taking daredevil risk over the mountains of Utah, you’re watching the real thing. David Janssen was a trained pilot who actually was flying the helicopter and doing his own stunts for the majority of the film. When the two helicopters nearly collide, you’re aware that you’re seeing a real near-miss, one that could have gone tragically wrong if not for the talents of the men piloting those helicopters.
Despite all of the action in the air, the film does occasionally touch ground. Harry and McAndrew talk about why some vets can move on and others can’t. Harry briefly lands on the freeway and gets some help from a passing motorist. Finally, Harry gets to know the kidnapped teller, who has never been outside of Salt Lake City and who shares Harry’s love of old movies. David Janssen was the go-to guy for gruff and grizzled heroes in 1970s made-for-TV movies and he’s pretty good as Harry. But the real stars of the film are the helicopters and the still-impressive aerial footage of them chasing each other above Utah.
Unfortunately, I have never seen a good print of Birds of Prey. Even the version on Amazon Prime is grainy, scratchy, and sometimes washed-out. (It also features a promo for a television station in Phoenix, suggesting that it was transferred straight from a VHS tape.) I hope that, at some point in the near future, someone will restore this minor chase classic.