Jonas Bracken (Robert Culp) is a wealthy American industrialist currently residing with his wife Ellen (Susannah York) and their two young children, living in a gated mansion in the countryside. Unfortunately, their exact location has been pinpointed by a group of European terrorists, and one morning after Jonas has left for work, the evildoers swoop, murdering the staff and kidnapping the three family members, taking them to a secret hideaway where they are locked up in a cell. The only way they are going to be released is if Bracken can agree to their demands, which will place many lives in peril, so he has to turn to Jim McCabe (James Coburn) for help. A pilot and adventurer, he happens also to be the actual father of one of Bracken's children...
Sky Riders was basically an action thriller with one big idea, but what a good one it was: make use of the newly popular sport of hang gliding. Of course, producer and co-writer Sandy Howard was not about to play his hand straight away, so the audience had to wait until the scene depicted on the poster arrived about halfway through the story. Before that, the film paid lip service to making a political statement since the nineteen-seventies in Europe was a time blighted with terrorism in many of the Western nations; the bad guys in this case were a bunch of well-organised Communists who were thwarted in Paris during the student riots so have decided to take up more violent methods to get their way.
But really the movie needed a bogeyman, and the spectre of terrorism was as good as any, there were plenty of groups to choose from, though here the insurgents belonged to an entirely invented band of brothers and sisters united under the gun. We can tell they mean business because when the Greek police inspector, Nikolidis (Charles Aznavour), tries to get one up on them by following their instructions, he ends up with a selection of dead and injured policemen on his hands as the terrorists lead them into a trap that explodes with a devastating blow. Therefore it was up to McCabe to have a brainwave, and inspiration struck when he sighted a troupe of hang gliders who put on shows for the tourists.
Coburn was always comfortable with action sequences, sort of a friendlier Lee Marvin in that respect, and for the last half of this he had the opportunity to essay the adventurer role with his typically laconic charm, "laconic" being the perfect word for his style, hence every writer would use it to describe him at one point or another. He was a man's man, sure, but also someone here we could see women and children could trust; Sky Riders wasn't his most celebrated starring part, but it proved how good he was when called on to coast through something many other stars would have sleepwalked past, his charisma operating at a level above what perhaps was required. Thanks to this, the film was lifted above the ordinary since the extensive stunt work mattered all the more because we could tell it mattered to Coburn.
To the extent that he participated in them himself, not so much the hang gliding business, but there was a shot late on where he has grabbed onto a passing helicopter unseen by us until the camera focuses on him holding on like grim death, then pulls out to reveal it genuinely was James Coburn performing the activity, no wires, no superimpositions, the real deal, and that contribution added a lot, as any fan of Buster Keaton, Jean-Paul Belmondo or Jackie Chan would tell you. When the gliders were not gliding around the mountain hideout of the terrorists, the gunplay came out with a vengeance, and we were supposed to believe John Beck and his team of what was essentially an outdoor circus act could effectively hold their own against heavily armed madmen with a cause, which you may find difficult to swallow. It was not particularly important in the long run, this was a fantasy of getting even with a world that was becoming more confusing and frightening in the news stories the audience read every day, and Coburn was the capable hero in that. Catchy, lilting score by Lalo Schifrin.