Movie Review: The Sunchaser (1996)
“It began as a kidnapping. It became a journey of hope.”
The Sunchaser (1996)
Director: Michael Cimino
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jon Seda, Anne Bancroft
Synopsis: A rich oncologist is kidnapped by a terminally ill 16-year-old prison inmate.
It’s tempting to view the plight of The Sunchaser’s escaped half-Native American prisoner, Brandon ‘Blue’ Moon (Jon Seda – Carlito’s Way, Bad Boys II), as a metaphor for the career of its director, the infamous Michael Cimino. Moon, like Cimino’s career back in 1996, is terminally ill but, in a rash and desperate attempt to avoid the inevitable, he embarks on a futile quest which all but the self-deluded can see is destined to failure. Cimino is famous for directing Heaven’s Gate, one of Hollywood’s biggest financial disasters, but, incredibly, that film was not his biggest flop: the domestic return on The Sunchaser’s $31,000,000 budget was a paltry $30,000, making it by far his biggest failure. It’s a bit like giving up your gleaming new Porsche for a dilapidated old Caddy, which, funnily enough, is exactly the misfortune which befalls uptight oncologist Michael Reynolds (Woody Harrelson – Now You See Me, Out of the Furnace) in the movie.
Reynolds is one of those buttoned-down, self-satisfied types that any seasoned moviegoer knows will have his world-view undergo a radical shake up before the end credits roll. He’s briskly efficient, and completely impervious to the suffering of the patients he treats (“Nice watch,’ he comments to one particularly sorry looking terminally ill fellow before stepping out of their consultation to hold a phone conversation with his trophy wife about the purchase of a $2 million new home). Despite his self-deprecating denials to the contrary, Reynolds clearly has his eye on the vacant department head’s job, which partly explains why he’s reluctant to get saddled with Moon, a troublesome 16-year-old prison inmate serving time for killing his stepfather. Moon’s so hostile he might as well be covered in spikes, and when he overhears Reynolds discussing his prognosis with colleagues – two months of life at the most – he decides to break out and head for the Arizona mountains where, he believes, a medicine man he knows will lead him to a fabled mountain-top lake which possesses miraculous healing powers.
Yeeeaaahhh… and that, after a promising start, is where this particular wagon starts wobbling on its tracks. Let’s take a look at the perpetually scowling Blue for a moment, shall we? He’s a muscular lad, and his body is adorned with a couple of tattoos (this was ’96, remember: the era of Miami Ink was still some years off). He has that obnoxious confrontational attitude of one who’s so deeply immersed in gang culture that the act he adopted to look tough is now part of his psychological development, and he peppers his expletives with just enough socially acceptable words to make himself understood. His back-story is one of childhood abuse and poverty, and he’s in prison for murder. Now, tell me this: does Blue strike you as the kind of young man ripe for a spiritual epiphany? No, me neither. For his character to remain consistent, Blue would have to greet the news of his imminent demise with a blind, destructive rage, but our boy calmly orchestrates an unlikely escape which involves taking Reynolds as his hostage-cum-chauffeur.
Things deteriorate for both Reynolds and the audience once the story hits the road. He’s made to eat a fried breakfast when all he wants is a carrot, is almost forced to perform fellatio on a hairy biker who, with his equally hairy friends, then tries to murder him, is bitten by a rattlesnake, and harangued over his belief in modern medical practices by a New Ageing hippy played by Anne Bancroft (The Hindenburg, The Elephant Man). Even worse – we have to watch it all. Meanwhile, Blue has a couple of nose bleeds and threatens to lapse into a coma – when he’s not route-marching through the desert or climbing a mountain, that is. And, somewhere in the midst of all this, their mutual enmity transforms in to the deeply respectful – and entirely predictable – bromance we’ve seen ten thousand times before.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being the 10,001st if you add something new to the mix, but Charles Leavitt’s messy script doesn’t even match up to the bulk of the 10,000 movies he used as a template. Reynold’s transformation comes in fits and starts instead of incremental stages, and is all the more unconvincing because of it, although it’s at least made watchable by a heroic performance from Harrelson, who does all he can to find something sympathetic side to Reynolds. Seda works hard to show the internal rage that fuels Blue, but his efforts lead to a one-note performance that soon grows tiresome. Ironically, it’s Cimino’s direction (together with Harrelson’s performance), that goes some way towards preventing a bad movie from being an out-and-out disaster. Shot in widescreen, The Sunchaser looks terrific, and Cimino demonstrates that he’s still capable of staging effective action scenes. As with all his movies, though, it badly needs at least fifteen minutes cutting from its running time, and a much sharper focus on its core themes.
(Reviewed 21st June 2016)