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Backtrack Reviews

Though clearly intended to be something more than a routine thriller, BACKTRACK never transcends its generic limitations, and the surprisingly good cast ultimately founders. Conceptual artist Anne Benton (Jodie Foster) creates electronic pieces (supplied by real-life artist Jenny Holzer) that flash glib but superficially significant statements, and her work has begun to attract major media attention. Driving home one night, she suffers a blowout on a deserted road and, while looking for help, witnesses a Mafia rubout. Killer Leo Carelli (Joe Pesci) spots her, but Anne escapes and goes to the police. They offer her a place in the federal witness protection program, but patrician mob boss Lino Avoca (Vincent Price) sends top-of-the-line but eccentric hitman Milo (Dennis Hopper) and his dopey partner Pinella (John Turturro) to silence her first. They kill her boyfriend, Bob (Charlie Sheen), but she escapes. Months pass; Anne has severed all ties with her past and re-established herself in Seattle as an advertising copywriter. Milo, who never gives up, recognizes the text of a lipstick ad as one of Anne's catchphrases, and tracks her down. She flees again, to New Mexico; again he finds her. But this time he offers her a deal: he'll let her live, if she'll do anything and everything he asks. Milo's interest in Anne, it turns out, is more than professional, but not exactly what she thinks. He doesn't want her to be his sex slave, though sex is part of the equation. A man obsessed, Milo has fallen in love with Anne, and has no idea how to cope with the unfamiliar emotion. Astonishingly, after a rocky start, Anne realizes she has also fallen for him. By failing to kill Anne, Milo has marked himself for death, and the two flee together to an isolated farm he owns. Avoca's men track them there, and they realize that in order to be free, they must return and confront their pursuers. The audacious plan they concoct works, and they escape together to a new life. Directed by Hopper, BACKTRACK's credits carry the notorious "Alan Smithee" pseudonym, the sure sign of a helmer unhappy with the way his film has turned out. Shelved in 1989, when Vestron, the film's producer, went bankrupt, BACKTRACK was a troubled production that underwent extensive tinkering before being released theatrically in Europe as CATCHFIRE. Hopper was allowed to recut before the film was shown on cable television in the US in late 1991, but the result is still unsatisfying. Shot after Hopper's COLORS and before THE HOT SPOT, the ambitious and attractively photographed BACKTRACK attempts to take genre conventions--the seemingly emotionless hitman falls for his intended victim thriller--and rework them. But, also like THE HOT SPOT, BACKTRACK amounts to considerably less than the sum of its parts, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the performances turned in by the hip but strangely disparate cast. The resurgent Foster, who tackled this project between her Academy Award-winning performances in THE ACCUSED and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, is outstanding as Anne, even saddled with a pretentiously named cat and a tacky seduction scene that misses no cliche, from bustier to garter belt. Hopper's performance, by contrast, is striking but miscalculated. Milo plays the saxophone, worships Charlie Parker and Hieronymous Bosch and tries to smash windows when he's frustrated, though he's comically unable to do so. He's the reincarnation of the insanely scary Frank Booth in David Lynch's BLUE VELVET, but with soul or something (so we can like him), and a ghastly accent that could only work if it were clearly a meta-accent, some sort of parody of the way New York lowlifes speak in the movies. Meanwhile, John Turturro twitches, Charlie Sheen preens and Vincent Price is, yes, ghoulishly gracious as Don Lino Avoca, while Dean Stockwell is strangely recessive as mob lawyer John Luponi; perhaps it's his proximity to Hopper (with whom he appeared in BLUE VELVET) that makes one expect something more eccentric. Joe Pesci, whose name does not appear in the credits, falls back on manic mannerisms, and Bob Dylan's cameo (also uncredited) as an artist with a chainsaw is nothing more than an in-joke. None of them gives a really bad performance (except, perhaps, Hopper himself), but they all seem to be in different movies. BACKTRACK is occasionally entertaining, but more often infuriating. It could have been far more interesting than it is, and the considerable talents of all involved are expended to little effect. (Violence, sexual situations.)