The sort of downbeat character piece that enjoyed a brief but thrilling vogue in the ’70s, this drama about a mid-level crime boss features one of Jason Miller’s only leading performances in a major film. Oscar-nominated for his very first movie, The Exorcist, Miller was a complex figure whose onscreen career was impeded by his literary ambitions (he won a Pulitzer Prize for his play That Championship Season) and by ferocious alcoholism. Furthermore, while Miller was capable of conjuring amazing intensity as an actor, he was just as likely to underplay scenes to the point that his emotions barely registered on camera.
Both extremes are visible in The Nickel Ride, which is as inconsistent as its leading man’s acting. Based on an original script by future Forrest Gump scribe Eric Roth, The Nickel Ride centers around Cooper (Miller), an ambitious but unlucky crook stuck somewhere in the middle rungs of the L.A. underworld. Cooper has spent years developing a grand scheme called “the block,” a group of warehouses that he hopes the city’s criminal element will use to store and transport stolen goods, but the project is on hold because the cops and criminals arranging protection for “the block” keep stalling. Thus Cooper not only overextends himself but also makes a deadly enemy of Carl (John Hillerman), a crime boss higher on the food chain, prompting Carl to enlist the aid of good ol’ boy Turner (Bo Hopkins), who may or may not have been hired to whack Cooper.
As directed by sensitive dramatist Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird), The Nickel Ride has authenticity and atmosphere to spare. Mulligan generates a quiet mood of everyday normalcy with hints of menace bubbling just beneath the surface, and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth carefully highlights details and texture to create a strong sense of place in Cooper’s grimy neighborhood. The acting is uniformly good, even with the inconsistent energy level of Miller’s performance, so viewers feel like they’re firmly situated inside Cooper’s sad, small world. However the story isn’t as strong as the resources used to put it onscreen. Cooper comes across like a bystander in his own life until an extended sequence set at a woodsy resort, when gunplay raises the stakes for everyone involved. The narrative’s microscopic focus feels believable, but many sequences seem to meander because plot advancements are incremental.
Still, there’s something poignant about watching Miller play a man incapable of realizing his potential, since the same was true in the actor’s brief life; by the time he died in 2001 at the age of 62, Miller hadn’t appeared in a major film for nearly a decade.
The Nickel Ride: FUNKY