After John Boorman reconfigured the rules of engagement on violent revenge pics in POINT BLANK/’67, everyone wanted in on the action. But director Michael Ritchie was too much the sophisticated satirist to run this Mob Enforcement/Meat Packaging tale at face value. A MidWest cautionary tale, it’s more whack-o than whack, bumping its violent/absurdist tone up from Elmore Leonard level (an adaptor’s dream), then up again past Carl Hiaasen (an adaptor’s nightmare) into something really far gone, perverse & deliciously overripe. And damned if he doesn’t pretty much get away with it. Gene Hackman (billed after the title in a role he must have signed for pre-FRENCH CONNECTION/’71) is the Kansas City cattle king, successful enough to have stopped paying kickbacks to Chicago. But the Mob demands their cut, and hires Lee Marvin to head West and lay down the law. Once there, it’s mano-a-mano mayhem & shootouts, with Hackman’s angelic-looking farmboy henchmen chasing Marvin & his Chicago goons thru waving fields of virgin wheat. There’s even a bright red thrasher in a sequence Ritchie sets up as a variation on Hitchcock’s crop-dusting set-piece from NORTH BY NORTHWEST/’59. And off-the-wall moments as Hackman glad-hands businessmen from a meat buyer’s convention, offering nude orphan girls he’s cooped up in cattle pens, drugged for easy pickin’. That’s where Marvin takes a fancy to Sissy Spacek (in her debut) and turns unlikely protector. One more side to a plot that seems to be missing more than a few pieces. At a very short 86 minutes, who knows what else got left behind.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Chicago’s Meat Packing heydays were long gone by 1972. Was the film production downgraded from expensive period piece to lunatic contemporary? A Depression Era setting would make more sense in many ways, but perhaps it plays better in the absurd.