Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976)

Technology has all but killed that age-old American tradition of bank robbing. Oh, sure, you can still rob a bank if you're of a mind to, but the planning needed to do so today falls this side short of just getting a job instead (that is, if you don't want to get caught). The security measures used in modern banks are so sophisticated, you could spend just as much on setting up the heist as you could make pulling it off. There have been timelock vaults for decades, but the intricacies and difficulty of actually getting one open have risen exponentially as the speed and complexity of technology has increased. Then there's the aspect of getting away with it, which if you wear a mask and don't leave your wallet behind (as an alarmingly high number of crooks seem to do), shouldn't be too hard, but the clarity of today's security cameras, the use of smaller and smaller tracking devices, ink packs, and so forth don't guarantee a clean getaway.

Candy (Claudia Jennings) has just escaped from prison with a few sticks of dynamite, to boot. Ellie-Jo (Jocelyn Jones) is a put-upon bank teller who has just been fired. When Candy shows up at Ellie-Jo's former employer's with a lit stick of said dynamite, Ellie-Jo feels a thrill she's been missing all her life and helps her rob the place. Having paid off the debt owed on the family farm, Candy takes it on the lam. After picking up the now-hitchhiking Ellie-Jo, the two determine that they make an okay team, and that robbing banks with dynamite instead of guns is a swell idea. Pretty soon, the duo's fame reaches a point where the authorities have to take them very seriously, indeed.

Michael Pressman's The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (aka Dynamite Women) is something of a mixed bag. It positions itself as a distaff Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, but with cars and dynamite instead of horses and pistols. However, the pacing stops and starts depending on which of its two leads' turn it is to get naked (or even both at the same time). Granted, there's nothing inherently wrong with this, and it is certainly the main reason most people would want to see this film in the first place (the others came to see shit blow up). Producer Roger Corman's exploitation film strategy (boobs or blood every ten minutes) holds true, but there's little, if any, effort to work the exploitable elements into the story. Consequently, the film as a whole doesn't hold together too well. 

Also, the filmmakers seem unsure as to the tone of the film. It starts off as two girls having a good time robbing banks, but once the Fuzz bring shotguns to this dynamite fight, the mood sobers up for as long as it takes some bullets and blood to fly. I'll give you two examples to illustrate my point. There is an extensive undercranked shot of the robbers counting their loot, giving the goings-on a light, carefree feeling. Not long after, a character is rather messily shot and winds up floating in a lake. It's not so much the mood shifts that are an issue, but rather how they are handled. In my mind, undercranking has no place in any film that an audience is supposed to take even one iota seriously. If a technique was a staple of television sitcoms ("Gilligan's Island," I'm looking at you), it is disqualified from usage in non-comedic films. Likewise, graphic violence has no real place in a film intended as a light romp. That's just me. This is not to say a balance is impossible to strike. One's just not struck for the majority of this film.

This unevenness, then, applies to the film's treatment of authority figures. The first cop we see is overweight, rather dim-looking, and he hitches up his belt before approaching the crime scene. Plus, he is dumb enough to park over a lit stick of dynamite. Later, another cop is introduced reading a stroke mag on the side of the road. Pulling the ladies over, he tells the boys back at the station he's going to "get some piece o' ass." Needless to say, the girls make an ass out of him. A bank manager that the women robbed not once but twice is spoken of lowly by his unsuspecting wife and called a loser outright. Authority (and more so male authority) is depicted as clownlike. Even so, once the cops start showing up with rifles and hair triggers, all traces of buffoonery evaporate. It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye (or small intestine).

Still and all, the sexuality of Candy and Ellie-Jo is never portrayed as out of their control. They determine who they want to sleep with and when, and then they proceed to do so. Men who seek to force themselves on the duo are handily swept away. On this level at least, the film can be classified as feminist. The duo makes their own choices for their own reasons. They own their bodies and are the final deciders of what to do with them. In this sense, they are free, the whole reason for heading down their criminal path in the first place. And of course, a male-dominated society cannot bear the idea of independent women making them look bad, so they must be brought low by any means (read: violence) necessary.

To be fair, there are things in the film which are both interesting and entertaining. The first couple of times Candy and Ellie-Jo rob a bank are genuinely involving. There's some nice tension and uneasy comic mishaps (see, it's not impossible to do both), as well as an intriguing ploy which is at once wildly dangerous and thoroughly convincing in its effectiveness. Ellie-Jo's escalating search for thrills is also absorbing and provides an element of uncertainty and danger. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't make an effort to build on these assets, and the viewer is left shrugging. That said, there is some very nice cinematography courtesy of Jamie Anderson (who would move on to the original Piranha and Grosse Pointe Blank), but it can really only elevate this material so much. 

So let's break it down, shall we? Yes, there is dynamite, and yes, it is set in Texas. There is some chasing whenever the story remembers it. But great? More like The Middling Texas Dynamite Chase

MVT: Whether she's brandishing TNT or prancing around in a pair of Daisy Dukes which could more aptly be described as a denim belt, Claudia Jennings is magnificent to watch whenever she's onscreen. And it's not just her looks. The woman had magnetism and talent in excess. Her death three short years later was truly a tragedy.

Make Or Break: The undercranked money-counting scene accentuates the uneven and dismissive feel of the film in toto.

Score: 6/10

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