(US - 1982)
Directed by Tony Richardson. Written by Deric Washburn, Walon Green and David Freeman. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Valerie Perrine, Warren Oates, Elpidia Carrillo, Shannon Wilcox, Manuel Viescas, Jeff Morris, Dirk Blocker, Mike Gomez, Lonny Chapman, Stacey Pickren, Floyd Levine, James Jeter, Alan Fudge, William Russ, Gary Grubbs, Lupe Ontiveros. (R, 108 mins)
Released in late January 1982, THE BORDER is a film that remains somewhat prescient today given the immigration debate, endless talk of a US/Mexico border wall, and the ongoing humanitarian crisis with family separation and migrant children being held in detention centers. It was one of a cluster of similarly-themed films released in the early 1980s that dealt with immigration issues (with varying degrees of seriousness, if you consider Cheech & Chong's 1985 Springsteen-spoofing hit single "Born in East L.A." leading to Cheech Marin's fashionably late 1987 movie of the same name), including the 1980 thriller BORDERLINE with Charles Bronson as a border patrol officer going undercover as an illegal alien to search for a killer (Ed Harris in one of his earliest roles) targeting border-crossing immigrants; the little-seen 1980 public domain staple BORDER COP, with Telly Savalas as a border patrol officer taking on corrupt colleagues; and the acclaimed 1983 drama EL NORTE, an unforgettable and deeply moving saga of the immigrant experience. BORDER COP (also known as BLOOD BARRIER) skipped theaters and debuted on CBS in 1988 and shares some surface similarities with THE BORDER, which was shot in the summer and fall of 1980 but underwent reshoots in 1981 when test audiences disliked the downbeat ending. It was an unusual project for British filmmaker Tony Richardson, best known for the angry young man classics LOOK BANK IN ANGER (1959) and THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (1962) and Albert Finney's 1963 breakout TOM JONES. With a script co-written by Walon Green (THE WILD BUNCH), the presence of Warren Oates in the cast, a score by Ry Cooder, and its gritty subject matter, THE BORDER seems like something tailor-made for a Sam Peckinpah or a Walter Hill rather than Richardson, who hadn't made a Hollywood movie since the 1965 satire THE LOVED ONE, not counting the 1975 Diana Ross vehicle MAHOGANY, which he started before being fired early in production by producer Berry Gordy, who ended up directing it himself.
THE PLEDGE, Jack Nicholson is Charlie Smith, a bored, coasting immigration officer in L.A. He's got a nice arrangement going with local sweatshops, who let him pick some illegal laborers to haul in every now and then without incident. Charlie's wife Marcy (Valerie Perrine) is tired of living in their double wide and wants more, specifically a duplex in El Paso that they'd share with her high school friend Savannah (Shannon Wilcox), whose husband Cat (Harvey Keitel) is a border patrol officer. Charlie transfers to El Paso and finds patrolling the Rio Grande at the Texas/Mexico border proves to be far more dangerous work: his first night on the job, his partner Hawker (Alan Fudge) is killed by gunfire in a skirmish with coyotes leading migrants across the border. Cat tries to let him in on a lucrative side deal involving human trafficking he has going on with other officers and their gruff boss Red (Oates), but it's a line Charlie won't cross. That is, until Marcy's free spending and department store charge account--she gets a new waterbed, furniture, and a pool to create a "dream house" that Charlie can't afford--cause him to reconsider. He eventually rights himself on the path to redemption when Manuel (Mike Gomez), a sleazy coyote on Red's and Cat's payroll, steals a baby belonging to detained illegal Maria (Elpidia Carrillo)--a regular fixture in roundups and sent back across the border--and sells it to an American couple for $25,000.
STREET SMART) among its writers--found a certain degree of studio interference when Universal demanded a new ending be shot after screening poorly with test audiences. The revised ending offers an abrupt shift in tone from character piece to revenge thriller, with Charlie retrieving the baby and making a daring run across the border into Mexico to return it to Maria, but not before a couple of wild shootouts that feature one of the bad guys accidentally blasting his own face off with a shotgun. The entire climax--with Keitel's Cat and Oates' Red setting a trap for Charlie--seems every bit the rushed and truncated compromise that it is, culminating in a happy ending that's freeze-framed like the conclusion of a TV show. It's still a solid film with good supporting performances, particularly Keitel and Carrillo, but one gets the feeling that if it was made even a few years earlier, the original downbeat ending--with Charlie killing his corrupt colleagues and going to prison--would've been left intact.
|Warren Oates (1928-1982)
THE BORDER opening in Toledo, OH on 2/12/1982