Saturday, June 18, 2022

Trackdown (1976) review

James Mitchum (Jim Calhoun), Karen Lamb (Betsy Calhoun), Anne Archer (Barbara), Erik Estrada (Chucho), Cathy Lee Crosby (Lynn Strong), Vince Cannon (Johnny Dee)
Directed by Richard T. Heffron
The Short Version: James Mitchum is Jim Calhoun, a rancher whose 17-year old sister runs off to Los Angeles for a life of excitement and ends up as a high-dollar hooker in a call girl ring. Big-city law and order is lacking justice so Calhoun brings his own, putting his brand on the bad guys during an explosive finale. Notable for a Kenny Rogers track titled 'Runaway Girl', TRACKDOWN is an obscure gem even if neither the script nor a leaden Mitchum are up to the task. Estrada and Crosby are benefits but what really carries the movie are the sadistic villains, a few moments of shocking brutality, and a creative gun battle inside an elevator shaft. TRACKDOWN is quality sleaze worth pursuing for undemanding Drive-in fans.

A Montana cowboy named Calhoun traces his runaway sister to Los Angeles where she has gone missing. With the help of a street kid and a social worker, Calhoun learns his 17-year old sibling was sold into prostitution; going from a group of low-level greasy pimps to a high-dollar call girl ring led by a gangster named Johnny Dee. With little to no help coming from law enforcement, Calhoun makes his own law, leading to a final showdown with Johnny and his men.

You'd figure every good to decent movie has gotten a legitimate release by now; but once in a while you run across a hidden gem, and TRACKDOWN is one such diamond in the rough. Heffron's tale of revenge belongs to the school of films that brings together the rural isolation and tranquility with the crowded and crime-riddled urban setting. Think THE SEARCHERS (1956) meets MR. MAJESTYK (1974), but instead of Charles Bronson's melon farmer it's Jim Mitchum's Montana rancher taking on big-city mobsters. 
Richard T. Heffron's direction triumphs as a solid piece of Drive-in exploitation that has a few instances of shocking violence and brutality, and nicely staged action scenes. Unfortunately, director Heffron is unsuccessful at generating a memorable protagonist for his movie that likely would be more well known had he been able to do so. The film simply needed a more compelling leading actor.

James Mitchum nonetheless has presence and looks the part of a take-no-shit cowboy; he simply doesn't have the conviction the role demands. Any time Mitchum opens his mouth to deliver dialog, he never convincingly emotes the frustration and anger of a man from the country searching for a needle in a city of 22 million haystacks. Even when he finds out his sister's been gang-raped, passed around, and viciously beaten after being sold into sex slavery, he takes the whole ordeal in stride. 

In Mitchum's defense, the script by Paul Edwards doesn't give him much to work with. It's far more successful in the brutalization of his sister and building absolutely despicable bad guys (many of which--like in the original DEATH WISH--never pay for their crimes). The vigilante justice in the last half hour is fun to watch; but again, there's no emotional core emanating from the lead protagonist for the audience to rally behind. But if all you want is a really good exploitation movie, you'll find it here.
The eldest son of Robert Mitchum does his role justice in the action scenes at least. There's a fish-out-of-water element to the script as Calhoun encounters various underhanded and questionable characters while searching the streets of LA, occasionally brawling with the people he meets. One funny scene has him approached by three cross-dressers who claim to have info on his missing sister but they try to rob him instead. One of the transvestites is played by Tony Burton, Apollo Creed's trainer in the ROCKY series.
As evidenced by the handful of action sequences, Mitchum's fists are certainly better actors than he is.

He had a similar mild-as-milk performance in BLACKOUT (1978) where the villains carried that film, too. Mitchum came off much better in the rowdy Mountain Dew movie, MOONRUNNERS (1975), the inspiration for THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (1979-1985). Earlier in his career, he seemed more enthusiastic doing Italian westerns like MASSACRE AT GRAND CANYON (1965) and THE TRAMPLERS (1966) starring Gordon Scott and Franco Nero prior to DJANGO (1966) made him a major western star. 

The plotline of a young girl leaving the country and moving to the city where her innocence is corrupted has been told many times. In TRACKDOWN, Betsy Calhoun unwillingly works her way up from a small-time street gang, being raped by them (one of their members is a woman, too), juiced up on drugs, and then sold off to a lower-class pimp who then sells her to Johnny Dee, an upper-class kingpin running a high-end prostitution ring for an even more depraved clientele. 
Johnny's main lady, Barbara (Anne Archer of GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK and FATAL ATTRACTION), gives Betsy the guided tour, giving her the impression the life of a hooker is a glamorous and profitable one. In a similar fashion to the way Betsy's brother blithely reacts to her being abducted, she casually accepts the life of a lady of the evening till one client in particular is excessively violent. It's at this point the film takes a much darker turn and even Barbara suffers the consequences of her life choices.
It has been said that "a movie is only as good as its villain", and the antagonists in TRACKDOWN are truly loathsome. Where the script creates a less than enthusiastic hero, it goes out of its way to envision the sleaziest creeps imaginable. They come to satisfying ends even if the finality is wrought by an inexpressive, mostly vacant advocate for good. 

Vince Cannon may have had a minor career in movies and television, but he certainly carves a memorably slimy persona as Johnny Dee. He had a great look for mobsters and plays it to the hilt. It's surprising he didn't do more work of this kind.

On top of the viciousness and gritty atmosphere, a highlight is a gun battle staged inside an elevator shaft. Mitchum and some of Dee's cronies exchange gunfire atop dueling elevators in the film's height of creativity. The desert location for the final showdown is well-shot and caps the film in an appropriately exciting fashion.

Carrying Mitchum in the acting department are Cathy Lee Crosby and Erik Estrada. Crosby plays an impassioned social worker dealing with insurmountable numbers of troubled women who end up homeless, missing, or dead. She'd previously played the title super heroine in the TV movie WONDER WOMAN (1974) before Lynda Carter made the role her own. She was visible on a weekly basis on the hit real-life television program, THAT'S INCREDIBLE! (1980-1984); a series featuring various incredible stunts, explorations of the unknown, and scientific breakthroughs. If you grew up watching RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT (1982-1986), then you will fondly recall Crosby's INCREDIBLE co-hosting gig with John Davidson and Fran Tarkenton.

Estrada's Chucho starts off as a not-so noble guy, but redeems himself as the film goes on. It's not a huge surprise that he went from this movie to being a major television star on CHiPs (1977-1983) the following year. Aside from dozens of other TV guest spots, Estrada appeared in numerous motion pictures; mostly of the 'B' movie and DTV variety. If you're a night owl, you likely saw Estrada selling resort properties on infomercials.

Richard T. Heffron directed FUTUREWORLD the same year. The WESTWORLD (1973) sequel had a fantastic plot, rich in potential for a fascinating movie. However, Heffron was unable to take advantage of what the script had to offer; and TRACKDOWN similarly misses opportunities to ramp up its drama as well. Heffron directed lots of television, and TRACKDOWN has that feel at times... till the increasing sex and violence shows you otherwise.

The Kenny Rogers song, 'Runaway Girl', was written for the movie, and is featured on Rogers' 'Love Lifted Me' album from 1976 on the United Artists label.

The script may be severely crippled in creating an indelible hero (and the movie for not having a better actor playing him), but there are other aspects of it that sustains the areas that falter. TRACKDOWN is a surprisingly entertaining and engrossing bit of 'Cowboys and Gangsters' exploitation masquerading as a serious dramatic thriller.

This review is representative of the Kino Lorber bluray. Specs and extras: Brand new 2020 HD master from the original interpositive; 1080p widescreen 1.78:1; original trailer; running time: 01:38:12
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