Flashpoint Is Southern Noir Set to a Boiling Point
By Nick Nadel
This 1984 slow burn starring Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams is as timely as the bordertown thrillers you'd see in theaters today.
Two Texas border patrol guards stumble across a buried Jeep containing $800,000. That’s the potent set-up for the Southern noir-tinged action thriller Flashpoint. But when government agents in suits and dark glasses suddenly show up, what starts out as a tense crime drama in the vein of A Simple Plan spins into a full-on conspiracy thriller that will be catnip to fans of films like The Parallax View and Blow Out.
Bobby Logan (Kris Kristofferson) and Ernie Wyatt (Treat Williams) are U.S. Border Patrol agents who spend time in honky-tonk bars when they’re not out cruising through the desert. Director William Tannen and screenwriters Dennis Shryack and Michael Butler (adapting a novel by George LaFountaine) swiftly ratchet up the tension, as Wyatt, Logan and the other border agents bristle against technology gradually making their jobs obsolete. (The computerized “geo sensors” the border patrol agents are forced to plant in the hopes of catching illegal immigrants seem questionably effective.) When Logan and Wyatt find the Jeep, containing a skeleton and money dating back to the 1960s, it could be their ticket to a new life. But government stooges led by the mysterious Carson (played by that master of slowburn menace, Kurtwood Smith) arrive to ostensibly assist with a drug bust operation, and Wyatt and Logan are drawn into a conspiracy that turns bloody fast.
Backing up Kristofferson and Williams, well paired as two pals in over their heads, is a supporting cast that’s an embarrassment of gritty character actor riches. The late, great Miguel Ferrer turns up as a wisecracking border patrol agent three years before he would play a memorable slimeball opposite Kurtwood Smith in Robocop. Rip Torn adopts a spot-on Texas drawl as the local sheriff who may know more than he lets on, while Jean Smart and Tess Harper bring authenticity to their townie love interest characters whom Wyatt and Logan turn to for help. And keep an eye out for Roberts Blossom, best known to Home Alone fans as Old Man Marley, as a grizzled prospector who gets inadvertently pulled into the caper.
Set to a moody synth score by ’80s soundtrack mavens Tangerine Dream (Risky Business, Legend), Flashpoint feels surprisingly timely for a film that barely made a dent in theaters back in 1984. The heated relations between officials on the Texas/Mexico border and the local drug trade that exploits migrant workers calls to mind recent crime epics like Sicario, while the film’s knotty historical conspiracy elements could inspire legions of budding podcasters to pick up a mic and investigate. Much like First Blood and other 1980s films that explore post-Vietnam themes of government distrust, there are no heroes in Flashpoint, only flawed characters in various shades of gray.
One of a handful of theatrical films HBO produced with Silver Screen Partners during the 1980s, Flashpoint is a potent trip back to the days when Hollywood knew how to make a solid meat-and-potatoes thriller without an ounce of fat. (The classic HBO feature presentation theme music that kicks off the film is a bonus retro delight.) With its twisty plot and dense layer of paranoia, Flashpoint is like a bracing glass of cold water in the middle of an arid desert.