Backtrack (1990)

Dennis Hopper was one of the most recognizable actors.  His idiosyncrasies seemed to translate to his characters regardless of the role he was asked to play.  He played a number of different roles from his debut in Rebel Without a Cause to famous villains in everything from Speed to Super Mario Brothers.  

What many people who grew up with him as a character actor in the 1980s and 1990s forget is that Hopper, after doing his time on television in the 1960s, decided that what he really wanted to do was direct.  And direct he did - Easy Rider quickly became one of the most famous American road movies, as well as a statement about the life and death of the '60s counterculture. The problem was twofold: Hopper, outside and inside of filmmaking, was an artist first, and it seemed that his other goal in life was to do all the drugs that Keith Richards managed to let slip by.

Easy Rider was hours of footage, made largely under the influence, which was edited down to the form we know.  His next film, The Last Movie, confounded the studios so much that it was almost a decade before he got to helm another film.  Still, it was even longer than that before he had something that matched the success of Easy Rider, and that was 1988's Colors, which was a relatively straightforward drama about an older cop educating a younger one when it came with dealing with gang violence in Los Angeles.  The soundtrack, and the movie, were a hit, albeit a controversial one.  So, naturally, Hopper was allowed to do what he wanted for his next cinematic project.

The result was this movie, originally released as Catchfire in 1990.  What Hopper turned in was a 180 minute film, which the studio cut virtually in half, leading to Hopper taking his name off of it and it being released, to audience apathy and critical dismissal, under the pseudonym of Alan Smithee.  Two years later, when it was released on video, he released a slightly longer version called Backtrack.

Anne Benton (Jodie Foster) is a Los Angeles artist that uses electronic signs as her format.  One night, while driving through San Pedro after checking out her upcoming gallery showing, she gets a flat tire.  Going for help, she leaves the freeway to take a shortcut, only to witness mob boss Leo Carelli (Joe Pesci) killing someone.  Realizing that the murder has been witnessed, Carelli sends his henchmen Greek (Tony Sirico) and Pinella (John Turturro) after her.  She manages to get away, but they track her to her apartment, killing her boyfriend (Charlie Sheen) and leading her to go the police.

Initially willing to be cooperative, she notices Carelli's lawyer John Luponi (Dean Stockwell) hanging around the police station, waiting to grab her as she leaves.  She heads to the bathroom, buys a coat and a wig off a prostitute and hops a bus, making her way to a small airport in El Centro and fleeing to Seattle.  The cops, frustrated at losing their start witness, begin searching for her and, as the trail grows cold for both Carelli and the police, the former hires Milo (Hopper), a professional hitman recommended by his Carelli's boss Mr. Avoca (Vincent Price).  Hopper begins to get to know Benton through her art, and realizes that she is in Seattle when the words from one of her art pieces turns up as the slogan in a lipstick ad.  Carelli's men, Milo and the police all show up at the same time, but Benton gets the drop on them.  She is almost captured by Milo, but gets away, with Milo cursing out Greek and Pinelli for their clumsiness resulting in her giving them the slip.

Benton leaves Seattle and meets with an old art teacher who puts her up in a revamped theater in Taos, NM, where she stores art projects bought by one of her clients.  The trail again goes cold until a tape to a friend, meant to be mailed from Canada, is mailed from Taos.  Milo intercepts it and the police and heads to Taos.  Unfortunately, so does Pinelli, alerting the police.  Milo kills Pinelli and confronts Benton, informing her that he has fallen in love with her and will not kill her if she goes along with him.

Initially reluctant, she finds herself falling for the hitman and hiding out in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains.  Eventually they are found and, escaping once more, decide that if they are to be together, they must put an end to Carelli's organization once and for all.

Even though this film was re-edited by Dennis Hopper to more or less his satisfaction, the first thing one notices is that it is choppy in a way that you expect from films made with a fraction of its budget.  It is not unheard of for filmmakers to make unbelievably long films and then realize that it is for the best that the film be released in a more conventional length, so that is really no excuse for how jarring the transitions are. 

Technical problems aside, Backtrack is little more than the typical Stockholm syndrome story, made even more disturbing by the fact that Milo is obviously raping Benton as their relationship begins.  This type of story of a woman falling in love with her assailant was long past its due of disappearing at the time this movie came out, and it is even more of a disturbing plot point as it gets close to three decades later.  If it hadn't been Hopper making the film I doubt that Jodie Foster would have agreed to such a role at that point in her career.  I am also surprised that the story was written by a woman.  It makes me wonder if at some point the original story was more of a parody of this trope, or if it was supposed be so in the finished film but poor execution ruined the message.

Foster still does her usual job with the role, as she rarely phones it in, even when put in a stinker like this.  Hopper is disturbingly creepy as the hitman, Joe Pesci (uncredited) is basically the same character as he played in Goodfellas, and the rest of the cast is at the quality that you would expect from the actors listed.  Vincent Price is quite wasted, though, as largely a cameo role.

Luckily for Hopper, this film was overshadowed by his erotic thriller The Hot Spot, which was released the same year.  Still, although Hopper continued acting until his death in 2010, this was one of the last films that saw him behind the camera.  He definitely had vision and charisma, but none of that is apparent here.

Backtrack (1990)
Time: 116 minutes
Starring: Jodie Foster, Dennis Hopper, Joe Pesci, John Turturro
Director: Dennis Hopper


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