You know what I'm sick of? People who claim that living in a small town or rural community makes them better than those who live in a city. All the crazy, kooky degenerates supposedly flock to New York, L.A., Austin, Chicago, and other urban centers, and meanwhile the good, decent, "sane" folks live the healthy, quiet life in a little community. Having grown up in a village (yeah, I grew up in a village. It didn't become a city until two years ago), I can safely say that I have dealt with far bigger pricks and cocksuckers in village life than I ever have when living in a big city. There's this romantic idea that dwelling someplace where everyone knows everyone is so great. No. Wrong. End of story. It might not be Peyton Place, but being in a closed off, tight knit community just means people are in each other's shit all the time. Should you eat at the same diner every Friday, and suddenly decide you don't want to eat there anymore, the busy bodies in town start playing Sleuth, wondering what could possibly be wrong. If you dig having people nose in your business, memorize any routines you may have, and be privy to every private problem in your life, then by all means live in a small town. Me? I'll gladly take the anonymity of city living. I could walk down the street in Austin or Vegas and not get called a 'fag.' Small towners LOVE that goddamn word. Even if you're just taking the trash out to the curb, some jackwagon will find some shithead thing to say, and it's usually 'fag' or 'faggot.' It could be Schwarzenegger taking out the garbage; he would still get a gay slur of some kind because small town people aren't creative or bright enough to come up with anything better.
Whenever I watch a movie like Trackdown, I am reminded of how lousy small communities are. Like Paul Schrader's Hardcore, Trackdown involves a "decent" man from the country who travels to Los Angeles to rescue his kin from flesh peddlers. I really dig Hardcore, largely because Schrader acknowledges that George C. Scott's "victory" at the end is a hollow one. As he leads his daughter away from the porn life, Scott has unlearned everything he learned on this trip. Yes, his daughter will be back in Michigan with her family and its Baptist lifestyle, but Scott will never admit to the flaws he discovered while in L.A. It will be a return to form, a Baptist king taking back his throne. The questions about his own morality and judgment will be buried. Schrader's a great director, so Scott's Searchers-like quest is morally hazy.
Trackdown has no such moral hang-ups. It sticks to a very macho idea about women needing to be steered by a man. When Jim Calhoun (James Mitchum) discovers that his sister Betsy(Karen Lamm) has packed up and left their Montana ranch for Hollywood, he shits bricks and pursues her. Of course, Jim would look like a reactionary dope if Betsy made a good life for herself in L.A., so director Richard T. Heffron stacks the decks against the poor girl. Within minutes of being off the Greyhound, Betsy is distracted by hot Latino, Chuco (Erik Estrada), who was forced to act as a patsy by his gang. While sweet-talking the girl, he scoots her suitcase and purse away from her, allowing the gang members to grab them. With no money or clothes, Betsy stands on the street crying. Chuco, feeling lousy about what he's done, invites Betsy to stay with him. After a day together, the two start falling for each other.
Shit gets bad when the gang shows up, beats Chuco, and rapes Betsy. They dope her up and whisk her away to meet Johnny Dee (Vince Cannon) and Barbara (Anne Archer), who run a call girl ring. Barbara feels bad for the kid and insists Johnny pay the gang $500 for her. She cleans Betsy up, buys her new duds, and starts her down the road of prostitution. Here's my problem with the movie so far: It's wrong that the gang drugged Betsy, and she's forced into the life of hooking. She never willfully decided to partake in this lifestyle, so of course it ain't copacetic. She's also seventeen, which isn't the age of consent in some states. Again, it's wrong, though there isn't much difference between a seventeen year old and an eighteen year old. Heffron refuses to allow the possibility that a woman could want to work as a sex worker. Make Betsy eighteen or twenty, and have her choose to become an escort, you suddenly have a different story. Her older brother's fright and worry of the "big, bad city" starts to make him look like a jerk.
But that wouldn't be as easy to market. This is basically an updated western, so Jim's cowboy ways have to be morally pure. His white Stetson tells us that Jim is incorruptible, choosing to stay on what he perceives to be the "holy" path. Small town values are treated as sacred tenets that Betsy has rejected for the filthy, godless life. In the movie's mind, a woman who chooses to embrace her sexuality is a whore, but to avoid actually saying its true intentions, the film disguises its message with the sort of cheap gut punchers you find on crap like CSI, Law & Order: SVU, and NCIS. Complexity isn't wanted in these ventures; it gets in the way of the hollow platitudes is espouses. So, not only is Betsy underage, but she's robbed, raped, beaten, threatened with death, and made to sell her cunt to gross men. Again, it's called "stacking the decks."
James Mitchum has absolutely none of the talent his pops had. While dad was off doing stellar work in the seventies, like the amazing The Friends of Eddie Coyle, son James was sleepwalking through pictures. He's just flat, a non-entity throughout the picture. His Jim Calhoun is a blowhard with no self-awareness. The movie almost comes to a stop when the man has carry a scene by himself. Since Calhoun has no flaws, and Mitchum plays him in such a somnambulant state, his journey is uninteresting. He mostly goes around kicking in doors and muttering at people.
Faring better is the rest of the cast, which often threatens to raise the movie above its low standards. Lamm is good at Betsy, making her character not the one-note victim it cold have been. There's a few moments that suggest maybe Betsy isn't too upset at her new life, and Lamm sells this moral confusion. Equally as good is Archer as her hooker mom. She, too, appears to have willing embraced her work, and does her best to look out for Betsy. Her relationship with the girl is understandable in light of the reason Betsy left Montana: she didn't get along with her own mother. Real humanity starts to peek in, but Heffron keeps it under his thumb as much as possible. The best performance of all, if you can believe it, comes from Erik Estrada. His Chuco is shaded in all the ways Jim Calhoun isn't. This duality could have really pumped the movie up had he been the main protagonist. The in-between state of his life (in a gang, but not wanting to be; remorse at the crimes he's committed; knowing Betsy has been sold off) is compelling, and Estrada displays real acting chops. Someone remake this movie with Chuco as the lead.
The film does have that nice seventies grit to it. L.A. looks hot and humid, and the underworld is appropriately seedy. The action ain't bad either, particularly a scene in an elevator shaft where Calhoun and some thugs shoot at each other while riding on the tops of different lifts. The ending takes on the classic cowboy showdown pose as Jim Calhoun stands in the middle of a desert road and takes out goons. Souring the movie, though, is a sudden mean-spirited event that darkens the remainder of the picture. It's wholly unnecessary, and the movie doesn't have the balls to properly deal with the ramifications. When all is said and done, Trackdown plays to the exaggerated fears of small town folks who can't fathom why anyone would want to mosey out of their little burg. If this doesn't leave a bad taste in your mouth, you have a stronger palate than me.