The new video release Chasers looks like just another generic action comedy, but what’s that credit at the bottom? Directed by Dennis Hopper? Those who know him from his villainous turn in Speed may not care, but for hippie purists it could seem the biggest sellout since Eldridge Cleaver put out a line of menswear.
Actually, while Hopper has been a busy actor since Blue Velvet and Hoosiers rejuvenated his career in 1986, his directorial sideline has kept pace. The focus has changed over the course of his seven films, though: Where his work once teemed with provocative experimentalism, these days it’s as safe as milk.
There’s nothing safe about Hopper’s directorial debut, Easy Rider, now in theatrical rerelease to mark its 25th anniversary. He and Peter Fonda star as two disaffected drug dealers rolling across an allegorical America, and Jack Nicholson rode the smallish role of a boozy lawyer (after Rip Torn dropped out) to an Oscar nomination. Rider looks pretty dated these days, but Hopper’s grubby performance and edgy directing style still make for a pointedly bad trip.
His much-awaited follow-up, The Last Movie, is mostly just a bummer. Hopper plays a movie stuntman who stays in an Andean village after the camera crew goes home, only to cave in to decadence and paranoia. Buried under the avant-garde crosscutting and unexamined lefty politics, though, are some sharp ideas and imagery, particularly when the villagers stage a mock movie production of their own and cast the stuntman as their uncomprehending star.
Movie’s failure and his own excesses drove Hopper underground for a long spell, and few people saw his next movie, Out of the Blue. The public’s loss, since it’s probably his best. Linda Manz plays a teenage girl whose spiritual parents are Elvis Presley and Johnny Rotten. Her real parents, unfortunately, are a waitress with a taste for heroin (Sharon Farrell) and a drunken, abusive truck driver (Hopper). Made without much concern for camera focus, Out of the Blue is still the definitive American punk movie, a caustic funeral for the counterculture, and the director’s artistic comeback.
Colors was the commercial comeback. At that point in his career, it seemed as though Hopper was one of the few ’60s survivors to make it with integrity intact, and this terse, violent L.A. cop story reeked of street cred. He didn’t even need to give himself an acting role, since stars Sean Penn and Robert Duvall basically played the Two Faces of Dennis: hyper young firebrand and cautious older lion.
By that point in his career, it was possible to make generalizations about Hopper-directed movies: (A) He likes to cast deep and hip, with virtually every role filled by a well-known face or fellow survivor; (B) he likes to throw in sex scenes that, contrary to the Hollywood rule, have the funk of actual sex; (C) his movie world is a man’s world, with women either marginalized or stereotyped.
All of the above apply to his next two films, Backtrack and The Hot Spot. Depending on where you stand, they’re either his most playful or his most lightweight. Backtrack is a great, goofy sleeper about an avant-garde artist (Jodie Foster), a Mob assassin (Hopper), and the romance that springs up between them. Hot Spot is slightly more conventional, a sly imitation noir with Don Johnson as a drifter caught between a good girl (Jennifer Connelly) and a bad lady (Virginia Madsen) in a desert town. It’s also a tad obvious and a little slow, hinting that Hopper may have been running out of ideas.
The formulaic Chasers confirms it. The Last Detail played for har-har redneck comedy, it’s about two Navy policemen, a grizzled vet (Tom Berenger) and a callow con man (William McNamara), who escort a shapely lady prisoner (Erika Eleniak) across the South to her rendezvous with the brig. She tries to escape; romance and car pileups ensue.
Hopper peppers the cast with his usual assortment of fringe players (Dean Stockwell, Crispin Glover, Seymour Cassell), but his own cameo as a horny salesman is an embarrassment, and the dreadful script mistakes cuss words for wit every step of the way. Hopper has always been a cynic — that’s his great strength, actually — but this is the first time his cynicism has extended to the movie itself. He can’t be counted out, but for now it’s a depressing story: from Out of the Blue to plain old out of it in 14 short years. Backtrack: B+