Backtrack, AKA Catchfire, is one of those films where you look at the stacked cast and you’d think this would have to be a great film, or how have I not heard of this film? Dennis Hopper and Jodie Foster, just one year before starring in The Silence of the Lambs; just this pair alone makes this film worth checking out. What also makes this film a bit unique is that it directed by Dennis Hopper as well. Easy Rider is pretty much a classic in its own right, and in 1988 he had also done this film Colors, which starred Sean Penn and Robert Duvall. It is a pretty solid film and worth checking out, but right now the focus is on Backtrack. Really, it is at its core a simple crime/mobster movie, but it is sort of a cautionary tale of what happens when you try to inject too much “art” into a film that really is just a basic (yet strange) neo-noir story.
Anne Benton (Jodie Foster) is a fairly successful artist and has a relatively normal life, but that all changes when she gets a flat tire and as a results stumbles across a mob hit. She narrowly gets away, and when her boyfriend, played by Charlie Sheen, is killed by some mobsters, she goes to the police. Well, they are no big help; they want her to change her name and go into witness protection, which is something she’s not interested in. Fearing for her safety, she goes on the run and into hiding.
The mobsters who are after her are led by Leo (Joe Pesci), and also in his crew are John Turturro, Dean Stockwell, and Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos). Like I said, this is a pretty stacked cast, and big man in charge of all these guys is Mr. Avoca (Vincent Price). Avoca definitely wants Anne to be killed in case she decides to testify and possibly hurt the organization, so to help out in the manhunt (or would it be lady hunt?) they bring in Milo (Dennis Hopper), who is the best at his job, and that is tracking people who don’t want to be found. It doesn’t take long before we see that Milo has some strange quirks about him, but it’s obvious that he’s a dangerous man, and he’s very good at his job. The police are also on the hunt for Anne, and leading this taskforce is Pauling (Fred Ward).
You’d think that this would be a pretty basic cat-and-mouse film with the mob and the police tracking down Anne and her having to outwit both sides, but really that is only half the story. This film takes a bizarre turn when Milo catches up to Anne and gives her the choice to either die or live but belong to Milo. She chooses to live. Here’s the thing; I’m curious how much of an influence working with David Lynch on Blue Velvet had on Hopper, because this film definitely dips its toes into Lynchian territory. For instance, there are moments where Milo randomly has a saxophone and plays it (horribly, I should point out) as though to clear his mind. Then there is the relationship that develops between Anne and Milo, which is somewhere between strange fetish sexual tension and extreme Stockholm syndrome. The two become a romantic couple and are on the run from the police and the mob, and I’m just left scratching my head wondering what is going on?
Despite the film’s quirks, I still found myself enjoying it. Jodie Foster is stunning here and is so likeable you definitely are rooting for her, but once Anne starts getting intimate with Milo, you can’t help but hope she’s just playing him and biding her time to make an escape, but that’s not happening. As for Milo, you just can’t help but feel sorry for him, and it becomes harder to believe he’s a vicious killer as the film goes on. The cast is really fun to watch, and really some of the film’s best moments are with Leo and his crew. It’s easy to see why these guys are as respected as they are.
The version of the film I watched was the Directors Cut and it which is 16 minutes longer than the original cut of the film. I can’t imagine how much more confusing this film would be without the added footage. While this film isn’t great, it is at least filled with great performances. For a film lover, this film is worth watching just for the cast alone. You get to see Jodie Foster in all her sex appeal, Joe Pesci pre-Goodfellas and you can definitely see his energy that he would later bring to that role, and then John Turturro before the Coen brothers snatched him up and really juiced out some of his more memorable performances. As for Dennis Hopper, he is never bad in my book. Even in Waterworld I felt he was at least fantastic to watch. This I feel could have been a better film if he didn’t try to experiment so much with it, but I can applaud the fact that he was trying to do something different at least.