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Retro Review: THE BORDER (1982)

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THE BORDER
(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.





In one of his more restrained performances that recalls his character driven, pre-CUCKOO'S NEST work of the early 1970s and foreshadows 2001's underrated 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.





Much closer to the low-key, Bob Rafelson-style character pieces that helped establish Nicholson as a star a decade or so earlier, THE BORDER--which also counts DEER HUNTER Oscar-winner Deric Washburn and David Freeman (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)
Nicholson is excellent, and in a move that almost seems designed to placate his fans after THE SHINING, is afforded one vintage "Jack" moment when he gets so enraged during a cookout that Marcy insisted on hosting--where his drunk co-workers start a food fight, wasting everything he's purchased--that he wheels the grill with flaming kebabs into the pool, declaring "Soup's on!" Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), THE BORDER is a sincere film diminished somewhat by studio-mandated changes. It didn't do well at the box office in 1982 and while it stayed on TV and cable and was represented on home video enough in the ensuing years to keep it from fading into obscurity, it's a film that's rarely referenced in discussions of the careers of Nicholson or Richardson. It was also the last work that Warren Oates would see released in his lifetime: the grizzled screen veteran and Peckinpah bestie (BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA) died of a heart attack on April 3, 1982, just two months after THE BORDER hit theaters, with years of hard living making the 53-year-old actor look a decade older. A workhorse to the end, Oates, who got a bit of a late career bump displaying his comedic slow burn chops as the no-nonsense Sgt. Hulka in the 1981 Bill Murray smash hit STRIPES, had four projects in the can when he died: the CBS miniseries THE BLUE AND THE GRAY aired in November 1982, while the feature films BLUE THUNDER and TOUGH ENOUGH would bow in the summer of 1983. He also starred in an episode of the syndicated Roald Dahl anthology series TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED that was shot shortly before his death but didn't air until 1985.



THE BORDER opening in Toledo, OH on 2/12/1982




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