Never mind that the “kid” of the title is played by a 34-year-old Martin Sheen, because if that kind of logical disconnect ruins your viewing experiences, then you probably don’t have much of an appetite for dopey TV movies from the ’70s, and The California Kid will strike you as a non-starter. Flip side, if you’re willing to lower your standards in order to enjoy 74 minutes of formulaic escapism, then prepare yourself for an enjoyable fast-food snack brimming with empty calories. Hot-rod driver Michael McCord (Sheen) blows into the small town of Clarksberg, where Sheriff Roy Childress (Vic Morrow) is so mad for speed-limit enforcement that he occasionally pushes reckless drivers’ cars over a cliff in treacherous canyon terrain. One of Sheriff Roy’s victims was Michael’s kid brother, so Michael has come to Clarksberg in search of truth and, if necessary, frontier justice. That’s the entire plot, notwithstanding an anemic love story pairing Michael with seen-it-all waitress Maggie (played by lissome singer-turned-actress Michelle Phillips).
Written and directed, respectively, by longtime TV professionals Richard Compton and Richard T. Heffron, The California Kid is competent but graceless, and the movie’s lack of character development is laughable, especially when the filmmakers try for angsty gravitas in the final act. Had the project not landed so many interesting actors (Stuart Margolin and Nick Nolte show up in supporting roles), it’s safe to assume that The California Kid would have been unbearably vapid. As is, the thing moves along at a more sluggish pace than you might imagine, given the high-octane subject matter, but Sheen is consistently watchable. He’s particularly compelling in moments when he glares at Morrow, the heat of his character’s rage smoldering from beneath a menacingly scrunched brow. And just when it seems that Morrow has phoned in a one-dimensional portrayal, the revelation of his character’s backstory—combined with a single scene in a dusty backyard—adds something like nuance. So even though one can’t help but wish this thing grew up to become the Roger Corman-esque thrill ride it so clearly wants to, The California Kid has its simplistic charms.
The California Kid: FUNKY