Saturday, December 1, 2012

Convoy (1978)

          A sad spectacle representing the near-end of a once-glorious career, Convoy was not director Sam Peckinpah’s final film, but it might as well have been. (He only made one more picture, the lifeless ’80s espionage flick The Osterman Weekend.) Virtually a lampoon of every theme and visual device Peckinpah used in his previous films, Convoy is as vapid as the director’s other pictures are meaningful, so watching the movie is like seeing a faded singer struggle through greatest hits he can no longer perform with the proper energy. Exacerbating its lack of artistic worth, Convoy was the production that finally destroyed Peckinpah’s fragile reputation in Hollywood, since substance abuse often left him so debilitated that his friend James Coburn had to step in and direct several scenes. Even with the extra help, Convoy came in over-budget and over-schedule, guaranteeing no reputable producer would hire Peckinpah for years.
         Providing the final insult, Convoy became Peckinpah’s biggest box-office success.
         Yes, despite making provocative classics like The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), Peckinpah wasn’t fully embraced by American moviegoers until he helmed a trucker flick that was adapted from a novelty song. The song, of course, was C.W. McCall’s “Convoy,” the 1975 hit in which McCall narrated the tale of a rebel trucker’s adventure while cheesy music composed by future Mannheim Steamroller leader Chip Davis grooved underneath. Screenwriter B.W.L. Norton translated the song quite literally, presenting the idiotic story of badass trucker Martin “Rubber Duck” Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) forming a giant convoy of 18-wheelers to battle corrupt Sheriff “Dirty Lyle” Wallace (Ernest Borgnine).
          Yet Norton should probably be held blameless for the incoherent weirdness of the final film, since Peckinpah rewrote the script before and during production, even taking the extreme of letting his cast contribute material whether or not the material actually fit the overall storyline. Worse, Peckinpah dug into the tropes of his earlier movies, layering in endless scenes of property destruction, slow-motion violence, and sweaty men stirring up trouble. Whenever Convoy enters a sloppy montage of barroom brawling or cars crashing through buildings, the movie becomes a parody of Peckinpah’s wild-man style.
         Had the filmmaker demonstrated any discipline or restraint, Convoy could easily have become a fun B-movie about outlaws fighting the man. Certainly, the casting of the lead roles pointed the way toward something unpretentiously enjoyable. Singer-turned-actor Kristofferson, at the height of his beardy handsomeness, exudes rock-star cool, so he cuts a great figure steering an 18-wheeler while wearing aviator shades and a wife-beater. Borgnine, his gap-toothed swarthiness in full bloom, personifies redneck villainy. Yet Peckinpah puts so much crap between these characters—driving montages, explosions, pointless scenes featuring Kristofferson’s love interest, played by Ali MacGraw with her usual ineptitude—that the basic story gets bludgeoned to death. Convoy ends up feeling like a fever dream instead of a narrative, so it’s fascinating for all the wrong reasons.

Convoy: FREAKY

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