aka Catchfire ….
Once Easy Rider screen legend Dennis Hopper had made the comeback Hollywood loves after quitting the drugs and alcohol that had fueled his existence for far too many years, they gave him the opportunity to direct once again following a pair of acting triumphs in 1986. The films I refer to are Blue Velvet and Hoosiers that scored him an Oscar nomination. Backtrack came on the heals of his 1988 directorial hit, Colors, that featured Sean Penn and Robert Duvall as police officers tangled in gangland turf wars.
Unlike Colors where Hopper stayed behind the camera, for Backtrack he does double duty as director and featured star opposite leading lady Jodie Foster. On screen, Jodie’s life is about to spiral out of control when she’s leaving her office late at night. She blows a tire along a freeway and while on foot comes across mobster Joe Pesci murdering two men while his goons stand guard. One of which is John Turturro. Spotting Jodie, they need to silence her as a potential witness. And so begins our very unlikely journey.
Law enforcement officer Fred Ward wants Jodie placed in the witness protection program so she can live long enough to testify against Pesci. She fears for her safety and it’s no wonder after Turturro shows up that night at her apartment killing her boyfriend Charlie Sheen. Foster isn’t overly thrilled to see Dean Stockwell, Pesci’s lawyer hanging around the police station looking to find out her eventual whereabouts. With a bit of street smarts, she ducks out thanks to a wardrobe switch with a prostitute and is now on the run.
Enter Dennis Hopper as a professional hitman sent for by mafia kingpin Vincent Price. “Think you can find the girl?”
With Pesci’s blessing, Hopper takes command and in Mechanic like fashion begins to study every aspect of his mark. After finding a couple of photos of Jodie in lingerie, Hopper becomes infatuated with his prey and begins to live out some warped sexual fantasy that he’s sure she’ll join him in. Along the way he’ll track her down to New Mexico and share a clip with Bob Dylan making a cameo in what me be the film’s most amusing scene. That and another when goofy Turturro shows up unannounced and accuses Hopper of some kinky goings on and not killing her as he’s been paid to do. Time for Hopper to act.
Taking a turn towards the unbelievable, Hopper kidnaps Foster plainly giving her a choice. Death or join me and let’s live happily ever after.
“I gave up my career for you. I gave up my life.”
Indeed Hopper has once the mob find a dead Turturro and track him and Foster down. Would you believe she’s fallen for the uneducated hitman with the sexual hangups?
No more on the plot points. Let’s get to the issues at hand. The version of the film I watched was a 99 minute edition released on DVD by Artisan. Apparently there is another version with 18 additional minutes released to cable and even a supposed 180 minute cut somewhere. Honestly I don’t think it would really matter. Despite an amazing cast thrown together the movie just doesn’t come off as a whole. It’s choppy which of course tells me there is longer version. One that surely has a couple extra scenes where Vincent Price gets some dialogue.
Joe Pesci slices the ham here and doesn’t hesitate to spew one F bomb after another while poor Fred Ward hardly gets to play along and when he does he even comes off as trying to hard. Also turning up for brief moments are Julie Adams and Catherine Keener. Jodie had just won an Oscar for The Accused and like many winners of the coveted award follows up with a dud. Hopper himself plays his oafish hitman awkwardly and one has to wonder just how he’s risen to the top of his field.
So here I am picking on a film and I hate to do that. It’s a movie that you want to know more about and just how it could have wound up such a disappointment with the talent involved. Even if I did see the supposed 180 minute cut, I’m not sure it would improve upon the performances delivered here. Might be just more of the same for another 90 minutes.
Being one who loves to connect the dots of film history, I’ll point out that Hopper and Vincent Price go back to the 1950’s. The pair appeared together in a 1957 Irwin Allen production titled The Story of Mankind. Going one further, that same film featured Groucho Marx and in Backtrack, a large billboard of Groucho can be seen in this film. Coincidence? Who knows. If I recall correctly I’ve seen Hopper praise Price in documentaries on the horror film legend and suggesting it was Price who got him involved in the world of art. Price would share the screen once more with Dennis in the 1992 cable film The Heart of Justice that would prove to be his final film role.
Dean Stockwell and Julie Adams had previously been directed by Hopper. Both had appeared in his 1971 film, The Last Movie. Dean would also appear opposite Dennis in Tracks and Blue Velvet for David Lynch. Hopper himself would still direct two more features, the 1990 noir like The Hot Spot and an odd comedy called Chasers.
As for Backtrack, aka Catchfire? See it for what it offers in a cast ensemble and for the intrigue of what it might have been or perhaps is if that long cut ever turns up.