Monday, January 28, 2019

Trailer Tuesday: THE BORDER (1982)

Directed by: Tony Richardson
Written by: Deric Washburn (DEERHUNTER) Walon Green (WILD BUNCH) David Freeman (not the guru, the guy who wrote STREET SMART).
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Warren Oates, Valerie Perrine.

I saw this movie when it was first released and was shopping in Best Buys or someplace where the DVD was on sale, so I bought it... and it remained on my shelf in the shrink wrap ever since. With the news filled with stories of refugee children crossing the border illegally, I thought it might be time to break the seal on the DVD and use the film as a topical Trailer Tuesday. Yesterday’s earthquake in Guatemala made it even *more* topical (and I had to add that line to the already written blog entry).

When I first saw the film back in 1982 I thought it had some great performances and scenes, but the story was trying to do too much at the same time and suffered because of that. Seeing it again in 2014... pretty much the same. There are three different writers on this, and they reshot the end after test audiences hated it. The problem with doing any screenplay around an issue is that the issue might overshadow the story and you end up with a mess... which is probably what happened here.

The story begins in Guatemala after a major earthquake levels a city and kills the young husband of a teen mother, Maria. With aftershocks bringing down any building left standing, Maria (Elpidia Carrillo) and her newborn finds her little brother Juan and they head North with a group of others left homeless by the quake.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Charlie (Jack Nicholson) is an Immigration Officer tasked with busting illegal workers. When he enters a sweat shop, the owner begs him not to close him down. All of the employees are illegals, because his business model for maximum profit is to pay employees no more than $6 a day. Busting all of the illegals will put him out of business, not to mention make it impossible for his employees to feed their families. Charlie has been doing this for years, knows how things work in the real world, and says he’ll take *2* employees... and then finds two without wives and families and busts them. The Boss assures the two that their jobs will be waiting for them when they sneak back across the border... both are good employees.

Nicholson gives a great performance in this film, *not* playing Jack Nicholson... but the character. He’s subdued, stuck in a rut at work and at home... and kind of a loser. Charlie and his wife Marcy (the great Valerie Perrine, nominated for Best Actress in LENNY) live in a trailer park, but Marcy dreams of living in her dream home... and goads Charlie into asking for a transfer to El Paso where her cheerleading friend from high school Savannah (Shannon Wilcox stealing every scene she’s in) and her Border Patrol husband Cat (Harvey Keitel) have a duplex... with the other side vacant. It could be their dream home!

Buy the border

El Paso is very different than Los Angeles: it’s the front lines in the illegal immigrant war. There is a constant flow of people being smuggled in by coyotes in vans and cars and delivery trucks... plus individuals who sneak across the Rio Grande. Add to that the drug couriers and mules offered free passage into the United States by coyotes in exchange for taping drugs onto their bodies. The boring job of busting illegal workers in Los Angeles is nothing compared to the chases and shoot outs along the border in El Paso.

Cat (Keitel) is his partner, and Red (Warren Oates) is the boss. My friend Gary Grubbs plays one of the other Border Patrol Officers in his first credited film role! Early on, Cat tells Charlie that illegals are a commodity, and like any commodity, you can make a fair amount of money for delivering them to the right people. Would he like some extra cash? Charlie turns it down, he’s compassionate but not corrupt.

After picking up a group of illegals and taking them to the giant outdoor pens where they wait for processing, Cat introduced Charlie to a slimy Border Officer from Mexico, Manuel. Cat seems to have some side deal going on with Manuel...

While chasing some illegals trying to sneak across the Rio Grande, a boy steals all of the hubcaps off his patrol truck and runs back across to the Mexico side. Charlie chases the boy (who is Juan) but loses him. One of his first days on the job and he’s going to get into trouble for bringing the truck back without hubcaps! That’s when Maria and her baby shows up on the bank of the river to return the hubcaps. Her brother shouldn’t have stolen them. Charlie thanks her.

When they bust a delivery truck full of illegals, Maria, her newborn, and Juan are in the group and get sent to the outdoor pens, which are separated by sex. One of the other illegals asks Maria if she would like her to take care of the baby while she went to get water... and this ends up a ploy to steal the baby. Manuel the Mexican Border Officer has a business stealing and selling babies, smuggling in drugs and illegals, forcing any attractive women into a life of prostitution or sex slavery, and *killing* any competition. The theft of the baby starts a small riot, which is quelled in time for the buses to come and transport the illegals back to Mexico. Maria *does not* want to be taken away from her stolen baby. Maria spits in Charlie’s face: now he has become the enemy to her...

Meanwhile, Charlie’s wife is spending more than he makes turning their half of the duplex into a dream house. Charlie is drowning in debt and asks Cat if there’s still a chance he can do some of that corrupt cop work? Of course! They next bust they make, they find two drug couriers among the illegals and Cat has Charlie load up the others while he deals with the two couriers... and then Cat just shoots them dead. They were not Manuel’s couriers, and part of the corrupt gig is killing the competition. Charlie says he didn’t sign up for killing people... Cat warns him he nets to get along to go along.

Later, when a group of illegals try to escape onto a freight train, young Juan attempts to jump onto the speeding train, falls between cars, and Charlie risks his life to save him. Maria changes her mind about him, he’s not the typical Border Patrol Officer (who would have just let Juan die). Maria says she will do anything to get her baby back... and this becomes Charlie’s mission.

When he goes to Red about Cat and the corrupt border officers group... he discovers that Red is part of it! In fact, Red runs the corrupt group. Now it’s basically Charlie vs. all of the other border officers. Red and Cat set up an ambush an attack Charlie in an interesting if poorly choreographed shoot out in a lots filled with giant earth moves and construction vehicles. Charlie kills both of them, goes to Manuel’s headquarters on this side of the border, kills the toothless dude in charge and rescues the baby... but Manuel gets away. The movie ends with Charlie crossing the Rio Grand to give Maria her baby back...

The story seems scattershot at times, not knowing if it’s an action film or an issues movie or a domestic drama or a SERPICO like corrupt cop saga. All of the acting is top notch, and the scenes between Keitel and Nicholson are a million times better than anything in TWO JAKES. It’s interesting to look up the young actress who played Maria on IMDB, because her career took off big time. She’s the rebel woman in PREDATOR! (And PREDATOR 2!) She’s in SEVEN POUNDS with Will Smith! She’s in the SOLARIS remake with Clooney!

Tony Richardson was a really odd choice for director, he’s best known for costume dramas like TOM JONES and JOSEPH ANDREWS and comedies like TASTE OF HONEY and THE LOVED ONE. It makes you wonder if some early draft of this was a straight drama and they added the action scenes to turn it into the kind of movie that would sell tickets... which might account for the patchwork feel of the story. The action scenes are not well done, even though you cam see the *intentions* by what the characters do. The big “ambush” shoot out is over in a minute, even though you can see that it was written to go much longer (Cat’s death is a cool idea... that isn’t set up in the shoot out at all).

What this film shows is that there is no easy solution to any of this. A few weeks back I watched the 40s movie BORDER INCIDENT with Ricardo Montalban about the same subject, with many similar scenes. Because RKO was one of the producers of THE BORDER I wondered if it was a remake of some earlier film, and when I looked up movies with similar titles on IMDB there were Mexican/American Border movies going back to the silent era! Couldn’t find one from RKO with “border” in the title, so it may have been based on some film with a different title. But there are over 200 movies with the word “border” in the title, and most deal with the Mexican/American border. I may do the Montalban movie sometime down the road because I really liked that one.

THE BORDER is a mostly forgotten film with good performances, but a story that’s all over the place.


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