Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Redneck Rampage: TRACKDOWN (1976)

We have a great love here at VJ for all things Mitchum.  Robert Mitchum?  Nah, I’m talking Chris Mitchum, youngest son of Hollywood legend Robert.  Chris earned his cred by going abroad in the 70s and 80s to star in some of the wackiest and enjoyable action flicks you can find.  Chris, however, wasn’t the only Mitchum son to head into acting.  Eldest son James Mitchum also got the acting bug from a young age, making his debut as a kid in 1949.  He later landing a plum role in pop’s THUNDER ROAD (1958), where he was hilariously cast as his father’s younger brother. Wonky onscreen genealogy aside, it works because James is the spitting image of his pops.

No doubt this worked as both a blessing and a curse when it came to casting directors, but James worked steadily throughout the 1960s in both big and low budget films.  Things cooled considerable for James in the early 1970s, with him taking a long hiatus from the screen after appearing in Dennis Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE (1971). Hmmm, I wonder if there is any connection between that film’s legendary chaotic production in Peru and Mitchum being absent for nearly 4 years?  Regardless, James returned to the big screen in 1975 with the lead role in MOONRUNNERS, a hicksploitation classic that served as the basis for the TV series THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (1979).  This got into theaters via United Artists and someone there must have been impressed with the returns as Mitchum was quickly booked for TRACKDOWN, which premiered almost a year to the day after his successful return.

The film opens with Jim Calhoun (Mitchum), a Montana cattle rancher, heading out to take care of his stock, but not before admonishing his sister Betsy (Karen Lamm) to mind their mother.  The film wastes no time as within five minutes Betsy splits from home and arrives in Los Angeles via a Greyhound bus.  Naturally, this na├»ve newbie is ripe for the picking and is quickly robbed by a group of cholos.  Penniless, she is befriended by Chucho (Erik Estrada), not knowing that he was in on her mugging.  He didn’t do it because he was a mean guy; he did it because he was in debt to this gang. Soon he is taking Betsy out on the town and – eyes fluttering – falling for this chick, mang.  Of course, all good one-day romances come to an end as the gang breaks up his lothario routine when they rape, drug and kidnap Betsy.  Poor little Chucho.

Meanwhile, big brother Jim has made the four-state journey in his big ol’ pick up truck to come find his sister. He knows she is in L.A. because she apparently called him (this is never shown onscreen), but finds disaffection at every turn when he tries to get help from the authorities. That is until he meets runaway teen counselor Lynn Strong (Cathy Lee Crosby), who offers to help the gruff cowboy look for his sister and take him up on his dinner offer.  She totally did it for the free dinner.  In the meantime, Betsy has been sold by the gang (for only $500) to big time crime boss Johnny Dee (Vince Cannon) after his main madame Barbara (Anne Archer) takes a liking to her.  Barbara cleans Betsy up and soon begins grooming her for a life of prostitution by spoiling her with the finer things in life. “Hey, why not get paid for what you give away for free” is her pitch and it seems to work as Betsy loves that money.  Damn, I knew I should have moved to the big city.  After beating their feet on Hollywood Boulevard, Jim and Lynn uncover the Chucho connection and pay him a visit. Feeling bad for letting this mamacita out of his life, Chucho agrees to help the duo find Betsy, which sets up for an all-out war with Johnny’s mob.  Somehow I think this country boy is gonna teach these here city folk a lesson.

TRACKDOWN is an interesting hybrid, cashing in on the good ol’ boy chic of Mitchum’s previous film MOONRUNNERS while echoing the urban crime plight of the earlier DEATH WISH (1974). Surprisingly, this fish, er, bull out of water works.  The film is a bit clumsy during its set up (we never see any of Betsy’s family in Montana outside of Jim, for example), but picks up substantially when it gets into the city. Director Richard T. Heffron handles all of the action well and the country-boy-versus-city never actually seems forced (even when Mitchum is beating up three black drag queens trying to hustle him or being hit on by a gay cowboy).  The best thing about the film is that it actually – gasp – takes chances!  Some spoilers in the next paragraph...

The biggest example is that Betsy is actually killed by a sadistic john.  Had this film been made today (hell, even if it was made in the mid-80s), that would have been a huge no-no. We can’t kill the poor, innocent girl.  We must have the tearjerker ending where she is reunited with her brother and they live happily ever after.  It is refreshing to see a film do something like that, also because it works in the context of the plot.  Jim is totally willing to muscle his way around and bust some heads, but he doesn’t actually kill anyone until he finds out about his sister’s death.  After that, his aggression (including an awesome finale on a desert highway) is totally justified and the audience totally has his back.

The many expressions of
James Mitchum
The last half is where the film really delivers as Mitchum is required to do more action rather than speaking.  And let’s just say that is a good thing because words don’t seem to be Mitchum’s specialty.  Despite being a dead ringer for his pops, James never really had that “it” factor that his father had.  That shouldn’t be held against him, but I must admit that James seems to have all the personality of a dead frog. We have enjoyed Mitchum in obvious trash like HOLLYWOOD COP (1987) and RAIDERS OF THE MAGIC IVORY (1988), but this was made by a big studio at the time when he was supposed to be serious action lead.  Mitchum is so one-note that he actually makes Jason Statham look like he has range. I can’t tell if he is drunk, doped up or just naturally a mellow guy, but I don’t think his facial expression changes once in this flick (see pic).  Angry? Sad? Happy? Horny? Pissed off? They all get that same, nonplussed expression.  If anything, I’d hate to play poker with James Mitchum.  Now, if you have the right frame of mind that can work in this film’s favor as he is supposed to be a stoic Malboro Man, cattle rancher type.  And, of course, he is more believable as that than Erik Estrada is as a streetwise chicano hood. Regardless of the unemotional lead performance, TRACKDOWN is definitely worthy of tracking down.

Box Office review, 3/29/76 (spoilers):

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