Judge Geoffrey Miller enjoyed this Kris Kristofferson film, but the picture was nearly as faded as his jeans.
A has-been rock star, a crooked cop, and a lot of money.
Singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson makes his debut as a lead actor in Cisco Pike, playing the titular role in this tale of a musician turned drug dealer. While the main plotline revolves around him being blackmailed by a narc, the real focus is on the hippie comedown of the '70s and the way the various characters struggle with it. Cisco Pike is one of those obscure, overlooked films that's getting a second chance to find an audience on DVD—even if it's coming almost 35 years after its original release. It's a small film, clearly shot on the cheap by an inexperienced director, but the superb cast (including many notable cameos) and a strong script overcome a lack of technical finesse.
Facts of the Case
Cisco Pike (Kris Kristofferson), a washed-up musician who was a teen idol in the '60s, has just gotten out of jail. He was arrested for dealing drugs—something he turned to after his music career went bust. Now that he's a free man again, he has vowed to go straight. Living with his girlfriend Sue (Karen Black), he's trying to break back into the music industry. He isn't having any luck though, as most of his old music connections are more interested in buying dope from him than hearing his demo tape. But that's the least of his problems after a crooked cop, Officer Leo Holland (Gene Hackman), forces him back into the drug game to sell 100 kilos of marijuana in 53 hours. While trying to unload the stash, he comes across a variety of colorful characters and old friends, including his musical partner from his heyday, Jesse (Harry Dean Stanton), now a drug addict unable to cope with his recent divorce.
Tons of pot? Disdain for squares? A prolonged, "maaaaan," appended to the end of every sentence? Yeah, Cisco Pike is a hippie flick. But it came out in 1972, when the movement had already lost much of its steam, something that's reflected in its downbeat tone. Don't write it off as a belated cash-in, though; it's more than a piece of exploitation cinema made for a quick buck.
It's true that the film is very much a product of its era. The dialogue is peppered with the sort of outdated hippie slang that's more suited for a Saturday Night Live skit than a serious drama. The script even goes to great lengths to show that there's a "language barrier" between hippies and mainstream society. At one point, when Cisco is inspecting the marijuana Holland wants him to sell, he says it's "bad dope," then—much like Run-D.M.C did some 10-plus years later—has to explain that he means bad meaning good. It's also strange to see how vastly different the attitude towards marijuana was compared to today. Cisco deals clandestinely, with the kind of secrecy that's usually associated with selling harder drugs like cocaine or heroin. It's a far cry from the quasi-legal status and widespread acceptance in pop culture the drug enjoys these days.
Despite plenty of nods to the hippie culture and the time period surrounding it, there's a surprising lack of explicit political overtones—no mentions of Vietnam (then a waning conflict, but still looming large in the American cultural landscape) or President Nixon to be found. Cisco Pike is more concerned with its characters' internal conflicts. Cisco himself, trying desperately to find a way back to his glory days of '60s stardom, is emblematic of the hippie generation's attempt to find new direction after their dream for societal change didn't work out. Officer Holland is a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, desperate for cash and screwed by the very system he's supposed to uphold. The emotional center of the film is Jesse, Cisco's former musical foil, and his attempts to reconnect with Cisco. He's a deeply troubled soul, but also the only one who seems to understand and connect with Cisco.
One couldn't imagine better actors for the leads. Kristofferson (who also contributed several songs to the soundtrack) is still rough around the edges, but his charisma shines through occasionally awkward delivery. He's almost unrecognizable compared to the Kristofferson most of us know: no beard or mustache, wavy long hair, and boyish good looks. No stranger to cop roles, Hackman portrays Holland as a manic paranoiac about to crack. In a supporting (but pivotal) role, Harry Dean Stanton brings a sad-eyed weariness to Jessie. The assorted cameos that pepper the film are a treat, from hippie icon Wavy Gravy to Warhol favorite Viva and Joy Bang as a pair of groupies who latch onto Cisco.
Novice writer-director Bill L. Norton's lack of experience behind the camera shows. It's very much the work of a beginner on a shoestring budget. The jittery camerawork in particular gives it a very "made for TV" feel. Thankfully for Norton (who would later go on to ruin his career making the much-maligned More American Graffiti), his writing makes up for his shortcomings as a director. Cisco Pike beats with the heart of a character-driven drama, and its script provides the pulse. Norton's biggest achievement is letting his characters inhabit the story without judging them. There's no preaching or attempt to force a message down your throat—just a well-told story that the audience is left to make up their mind about.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Don't get your hopes up about extras. The only thing that comes close is an unusually wide assortment of subtitles—how many DVDs do you see with Thai subs? It doesn't appear that there was any restoration work done. It looks like the cleanest print that could be dug up was just dumped onto the disc. Video is washed out and audio is muddled, although not to an extent that they are distracting. At least it's presented in its original widescreen format.
Cisco Pike is an entertaining little document of the splintering counterculture in the early '70s. It's a lot better than its boilerplate plot would suggest, and the acting performances are a joy to watch regardless of how dated the film is thematically. By no means is it a masterpiece—the shaky direction makes sure of that. However, it's full of gritty cult appeal, making it a worthy purchase for anyone interested in the culture or era. While the DVD itself is disappointing, it's acceptable for viewing. It's unlikely there will be another release of Cisco Pike anytime soon, so it might be the best we'll ever get.
Cisco is free to go, but whoever orchestrated the shoddy DVD treatment of his movie is put on probation.
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