While the prospect of a Marjoe Gortner vanity project may not sound enticing, seeing as how the preacher-turned-actor spent most of the ’70s appearing in rotten B-movies, Gortner’s participation as leading man and producer of When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? is deceptive. He’s all over the flick, playing a showy part and spewing crazed monologues, but he’s better here than usual, striving for and almost achieving charming-devil lyricism. More importantly, he shares the screen gracefully. Nonetheless, When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? is an odd movie. Adapted by Mark Medoff from his own award-winning play, it’s part character study, part social commentary, and part hostage-crisis thriller. The disparate elements clash with each other, sometimes creating narrative whiplash, and Englishman Peter Firth is wildly miscast in role patterned after the Marlon Brando/James Dean style of rural American greasers. When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? ultimately rewards attention—thanks to an abundance of action, occasional shots of pathos, and some strong acting moments—but it’s neither credible nor satisfying.
Most of the picture takes place at a tiny diner in New Mexico, where several characters converge on a fateful day. Angel (Stephanie Faracy) is the simple-minded waitress, and Stephen “Red” Ryder (Firth) is the angst-ridden night cook. Traveling through town are classical musician Clarisse Ethridge (Lee Grant) and her manager/husband, Richard (Hal Linden). And then there’s Vietnam vet-turned-drug dealer Teddy (Gortner) and his hippie-chick girlfriend, Cheryl (Candy Clark). Desperate for cash and drunk on exerting power over people simply because he has a gun, Teddy takes everyone in the diner hostage and forces them to do humiliating things (e.g., making out with each other, etc.). Drama stems from character revelations that occur under pressure, as well as the question of how much crap the hostages can endure before fighting back. Because the story is set in 1968, there’s also a trope of counterculture-vs.-Establishment friction, which never quite clicks.
Particularly when the story veers into full-on action/suspense terrain, it’s difficult to parse what sort of a statement Madoff wants to make. In lieu of thematic clarity, viewers get spectacle, mostly in the form of Gortner holding forth. While he doesn’t embarrass himself, a dramatic powerhouse he is not, so the film’s wings carry it only so high. Of the supporting players, Faracy makes the strongest impression, hitting her notes just right, even though she spends most of her screen time with Firth, whose performance is distractingly false—he seems as if he’s reading each line for the first time and struggling to replicate American idioms.
When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?: FUNKY