For an exploitation movie about the dangers of the big city, Trackdown surprises by having a few ideas to accompany the action. This film is deceptive like that; on the surface, there is nothing challenging about this cautionary tale. Karen Lamm (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and two-time wife of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson) plays a seventeen-year-old Montana girl who leaves the big skies of her home in pursuit of the L.A. dream. Of course, what she finds is nothing but trouble. A Los Angeles gang that includes a pre-CHiPs Erik Estrada robs her, rapes her, and then kidnaps her. Enter James Mitchum (son of Robert) as her bear of a brother, complete with mustache, cowboy hat, and deerskin coat. Mitchum is a fish out of water (the Montana man in the big city) looking for his sister and encountering nothing but closed doors. Guess he’ll have to kick them open if he wants some answers.
This is what I mean when I say that there’s nothing particularly novel or unique about the premise of this movie, but it goes to some really surprising places. This movie could have been Mitchum going from bar to bar and beating people with pool sticks and breaking beer bottles over people’s heads as he looks for his sister. Well, okay, it does do that. But it could have been just that.
We know that Johnny Dee is evil because he’s all about power and buying and selling human lives. But Anne Archer’s character is somehow even more evil because she’s encouraging young girls into this life in the first place, even though she knows how it ends. She makes an almost-convincing argument for her reprehensible behavior: sure, they’re prostitutes, but they’re also making a living without the need for a man to ever provide anything for them. That’s real power, and they’re using what they have to better themselves. Maybe she really believes what she tells her new recruits, or maybe it’s just part of the lie that helps line her pocket book. It’s wrong either way, but the movie takes the time to show the appeal of this life, and that’s not always the case with these films. It also hits close to home for us today, because the central organization that buys and sells women in this movie is eerily close to one that’s recently been in modern headlines. Smallville-actress Allison Mack is essentially the real-life version of Anne Archer’s character, recruiting women with the promise of empowerment and a higher level of existence.
Aesthetically, Trackdown has that laid-back California country thing that I like so much (see just about every previous entry in the Back to 1976 series), but it couples that with the urban landscapes of seventies Los Angeles and adds the funky chicka-chicka wah-wah guitar that this movie has to have. It’s the best of both worlds as Montana country meets the bright lights of the City of Angels. It’s Wild Turkey meets Jive Turkey. We even get a sappy country song by Kenny Rogers called “Runaway Girl.” This might be B-movie heaven for me.
Taken, and there are action scenes that predate similar pieces from Speed and Tango and Cash. Most importantly, the story appears predictable, but isn’t. When a movie attempts as much as this one does, it’s easy to overlook what doesn’t quite work and instead champion all the stuff that does.
Get more Heath Holland at his blog Cereal at Midnight!