Telly Savalas is stomping out crime in Trip To Kill (1971)
The opening credits of Trip To Kill handily reveal its greatest flaw; it is co-produced, co-directed and stars Tom Stern. I don't have anything against Stern personally, as he's had an interesting career, starting out as a CIA Agent in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Ritt, 1965), and graduating to The Entity (Furie, 1982), a creepy Barbara Hershey horror about demonic molestation. Before Trip To Kill he had starred in a number of biker pictures, including Hell's Angels '69 (Madden, 1969), which he had also produced. So here's the flaw (and I imagine it's the same in Hell's Angels '69, although I haven't seen that picture): it's a vanity project. Yes, Trip To Kill is, in case you hadn't already guessed it, nothing more than a showcase for its creator, and boy, does he indulge. I really hoped I'd be uncovering a cool flick here, but alas, I'm stuck watching narcissistic waffle under the guise of a political thriller. The whiff of ego is pungent.
The story (ha!) follows ex-soldier Joe Ryan (Stern) as he returns from Vietnam, decorated after jumping on top of a grande to save his fellow soldiers. Luckily for him it didn't go off, and now the scraggy veteran finds work collecting scrap metal, and at night scours L.A. bars where he meets Angeline (Marilyn Akin), presumably an ex-flame, but this is never properly specified. Anyway, she quit her previous job to become a go-go dancer, and there are a couple of scenes of her topless, so that's a plus. From here Joe is recruited by Redford (Telly Savalas), an F.B.I. operative who's intent on tracking down the head of a local drugs ring (played with relish by Robert Vaughn). Joe has to leave his swinging lifestyle behind in order to stop the bad guys (this happens through awkward plot machinations and stupidity, with many character motivations left unexplained and plot holes unaddressed), but y'know, yada yada yada, the plot ain't what you're looking for here.
So, what should you be looking for? Well, it's hard to say exactly. Given Stern's track record as both an actor and producer one might be forgiven for expecting an exploitation flick; after all, biker movies are about brawn and boobs, and that's a pretty winning formula. Stern's directorial sensibilities are exploitative too, but he seems way too bogged down in the plot to really deliver that kind of movie. It feels like he's trying to make The Deer Hunter (Cimino, 1978) meets Donnie Brasco (Newell, 1997), but with that seedy 70's edge; neon signs, strip clubs, jumpers and afros. You know what I'm talking about. Yet its worth acknowledging that, of course, Trip To Kill was made years before those movies. So, was it ahead of the curb? Not when you consider Bullit (Yates, 1968), made three years earlier, and The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971), which is much grittier than this effort. Still, the film should be contextualized and I think it would have actually looked pretty good in the early 70's; especially the final action set-piece, where our shirtless hero gets bloodied up in a tactical gunfight which looks like a genuine deleted scene from Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988). Of course, we're way ahead of that one too.
There are also some artistic flourishes which work well. The film makes interesting use of slow motion, especially in the opening Vietnam sequence, and light sometimes over-saturates the frame to allow the world a heightened feeling. There's also a great underwater dream sequence, and an impressive P.O.V shot at the end of a (terribly edited) dune buggy chase, but hopefully you'll see a trend emerging. These are moments - fleeting seconds - in a 90-minute movie, and they amount to little overall. To be honest, those light-saturation moments feel like accidents, and co-director Slate could have been the real artist here. In fact, I wonder how much he was actually given to do - the spotlight does always seem to flatter Stern, even in his most down-and-out moments. But the biggest problem with the film is its uneven nature (both visually and tonally), and the fact that it's really, really boring.
Yes, you heard me. Boring. A movie with Vietnam, strippers, gunfights and Telly Savalas scenery chewing - somebody actually made that boring! We plod from scene to scene with no fluidity or coherency, and the bad script ultimately makes this one a snoozer. As a political thriller it's lightweight and somewhat disreputable, and as an exploitation flick it's far too self-absorbed, allowing too much time for (absurd) plot development, and not indulging in what the audience wants - violence and nudity. It's a deeply confused film, weighed down by the self-satisfaction of its leading man, and we're left wondering about the motivations of the characters, and why we should even care. The script stinks, plain and simple, and that's a real shame. Trip To Kill could have been awesome. With full respect to the man, I just wish it wasn't a Tom Stern movie.