Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Cisco Kid was a Friend of Mine (Cisco Pike)

Cisco Pike is a very interesting footnote in the history of ’70’s American Cinema.
It will never be as enduring or as powerful as the following movies:  
    • Two Lane Blacktop
    • Five Easy Pieces
    • The Last Detail  
But that is entirely okay.  Cisco Pike utilizes a lot of elements that you might recognize from the movies listed above to make it worth a watch.  

And of course there’s the cast of actors that I personally love and will watch in anything.  Kris Kristofferson, Karen Black, Henry Dean Stanton, and Gene Hackman in the same flick.  What’s there not to like there?   
Yes, there is a very minimal plot.  
This is essentially it:  
Kristofferson plays Cisco Pike, a washed up rocker who is released from prison after serving time for drug dealing.  He is blackmailed back into the game by Hackman’s corrupt cop.   Cisco really just wants to settle down with his girlfriend Black.  But she finds out that he is dealing again and is upset.    (The fact that Cisco is a has been rocker seems to be played up in the promotional material.  It's actually hardly mentioned in the film)
Yeah, that’s about it.  And the movie really isn’t about the story anyway.  It’s about using Cisco as a pinball to bounce off of other druggies, con men, and burn outs.  We’re watching a meditation on character behavior and atmosphere.  
There are other standard movie plots that I guess could have worked.  Kristofferson could have been mistaken for another drug dealer and gone on the lam.  
Or he could have made of an effort to go “straight,” and gotten “gradually” pulled back into the drug world.  The old heartbreaking noir story of a good man in a bad world.  (Cisco really doesn’t put up much of a fight when the Hackman character blackmails him.  Is that a criticism?  Not really). 
Another story, honestly, would have just gotten in the way.   
Wouldn’t you rather see Kris Kristofferson and Gene Hackman have a bleak conversation over a mountain of pot for several minutes?   (Much cooler than it sounds, trust me).   
Or Kris Kristofferson attempting to deal to a pair of overly made up, faded groupies and then going home with them instead?  These scenes would have been rushed and uninteresting in a formula plot. 
I’m glad that Cisco Pike takes its’ time.  
I keep harping on Kris Kristofferson, because he is the glue of the movie.  It’s a very good, natural performance.  
That’s startling considering the fact that he had never acted in front of a camera before.  He was a last minute replacement for the lead.  And this is the film we have to thank for his acting career.  
That’s right, with out Cisco Pike there is no Lone Star.  Or better yet, Millennium.     
It’s a little weird seeing Kristofferson this young.  Sort of akin to seeing Jeff Bridges prior to the Dude.  Kristofferson hasn’t even grown the beard yet.  But I digress...  
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that Harry Dean Stanton shows up about half way through.  He’s playing of one his trademark lost souls.  And he looks exactly like he has always looked.  (Did the man come out of the womb looking that way?  Maybe so).  
I have some minor quibbles:  
The most important one is that Cisco Pike is a little cynically constructed.  The filmmakers were clearly trying to pitch Cisco as the next anti-hero to win the hearts of the youth market.  They wanted another Easy Rider or Midnight Cowboy.      
That means that the anti-establishment attitude feels manufactured, and not organic as the anarchy in something like Two Lane Blacktop.   
This movie was made to get a few bucks off a current trend.  You can’t really begrudge it for that.  Especially considering that it was a flop upon release and the ploy didn't work. 

Karen Black is a little bit wasted.  She is the moral center of the flick, but doesn’t have enough screen time or character development.   
And then there’s the ending.  It feels rushed, and just doesn’t have enough punch.   
But what can you do?   
I don’t know if I can suggest Cisco Pike to everyone.  But if you’re a fan of the era, give it a go!
Make or Break Scene:  Honestly, it’s the opening credits that beautifully establish the mood.  Kris wanders the streets with his guitar, looking for a pawn shop while one of his songs plays in the background.  
(I forgot to mention that several vintage Kristofferson songs are included on the soundtrack.   Including “Walking Contradiction” which was immortalized in Taxi Driver’s “coffee and pie” scene).  
Most Valuable Thing:  Kristofferson as Cisco.  It’s his movie.   
Rating: 7.5   This came close to an 8, but the manufactured attitude knocked off a few points.  7.5 is perfectly respectable.  
(Is it just me or is this the most boring thing I’ve ever written?  Make or break: The first sentence is pretty good.  MVT: Actually getting this entry done.  My own blogger rating: 6.5.  Wait, could I change that to a 6.9 instead?)  


  1. Excellent review; I had exactly the same reaction to the film. Good for lovers of '70s cinema, not so much anybody else.

    Another great use of a Kristofferson song during the opening credits is in John Huston's FAT CITY, from the same year:

  2. Thanks for reading, Will. And I agree. You need to know what you're getting into. But if it's in your wheel house, then go for it.