An action-movie star who prioritized quantity over quality, Charles Bronson made a lot of forgettable movies in his epic career, with the caliber of his projects suffering a precipitous drop in the 1980s as the combination of Bronson’s advancing age and his declining box-office appeal took a toll. Borderline captures the star in transition, because while the horrors of endless Death Wish sequels were still a couple of years in his future, it’s obvious the best material was no longer coming Bronson’s way. Cowritten and directed by Jerrold Freedman, who spent most of his career banging out generic TV movies, Borderline depicts the battle between U.S. Border Patrol Officer Maynard (Bronson) and resourceful human trafficker Hotchkiss (Ed Harris). As the well-financed Hotchkiss gets bolder and more ruthless with each illegal border crossing, Maynard becomes more determined to capture the “coyote,” especially after Hotchkiss murders one of Maynard’s deputies. And that’s basically the whole story.
Attempts at injecting the people in the movie with genuine characterization are feeble at best: Hotchkiss is a Vietnam vet, Maynard has a drinking problem, and so on. Similarly, Freedman’s supporting characters are feeble. Fresh-faced Border Patrol deputy Fante (Bruno Kirby) drifts in and out of the story without ever making much impact, and the callous businessmen backing Hotchkiss’ operation—rancher Carl Richards (Bert Remsen) and corporate executive Henry Lydell (Michael Lerner)—display slightly less than one dimension each. A glimmer of hope for narrative substance emerges during a sequence in which Maynard travels undercover as a Mexican to Tijuana along with migrant worker Elena Morales (Karmin Murcelo), whose child was killed in the same shootout that left the deputy dead, but like so many other threads in Borderline, Freedman doesn’t take this material anywhere satisfactory or surprising.
Nonetheless, the subject matter is inherently interesting, the southern California locations suit the story well, and vivid actors pass through the movie. Beyond those mentioned, the cast also includes Norman Alden, John Ashton, Wilford Brimley, and Kenneth McMillan. Plus, since Bronson is strangely absent from many scenes—he’s either offscreen or simply bored—Harris steals the movie without trying. Borderline is sorta/kinda his movie debut, seeing as how he’d played minor roles on television prior to Borderline, as well as a tiny part in Coma (1978). He makes a hell of an impression, personifying Hotchkiss as a believably cold-blooded automaton since the sketchy script precludes the option of forming a proper characterization.