“The Sunchaser,” Michael Cimino’s return to filmmaking after a six-year layoff, is a conceptually bold tale marked, in its execution, both by visceral intensity and dramatic sloppiness. Pitting two men who are diametrically opposed in class, prospects and philosophy, the rugged yarn gives the director the chance to demonstrate that he still possesses his flair for physical cinema, but also includes any number of implausibilities and gaffes that seriously reduce pic’s credibility and resulting viewer involvement. This looks like an iffy commercial bet for Warner Bros., with best chances lying in quick, wide playoff with general and action-oriented audiences.
This is a film with a number of things on its mind, including issues related to the tremendously different mindsets that exist within American society, Western medical practices vs. ancient treatments, and practical, materialistic values contrasted with more mystical, spiritual ones. These oppositions provide the picture with a strong dramatic fulcrum, but their uses are often crude or slipshod, giving the piece overall an uneven, unfulfilled feel.
A barrage of intercutting introduces the two principals: Dr. Michael Reynolds (Woody Harrelson) is a fastidious UCLA medic defined by his brand new Porsche, his table at Morton’s and the $ 2 million house he’s about to buy for his trophy wife. He is, in short, a yuppie wimp, who seems more concerned about what kind of cheese is on his pizza than about the welfare of his patients.
Brandon “Blue” Monroe (Jon Seda), on the other hand, is a born loser, a 16 -year-old, shaven-headed half-Navajo from the hood, whose muscular body is marked by tattoos and bullet wounds and who is in the pen for killing his stepfather. He also has an abdominal tumor, for which he needs to be examined by Dr. Reynolds.
The two are instantly at odds, and when Blue learns his cancer is inoperable and he’s only got a month or two to live, he manages to kidnap the doc and, at gunpoint, force him to drive toward the Navajo reservation in Arizona.
Limited as Blue’s education may be, he carries around a mystical book called “The Man Who Travels” and knows enough about Indian lore to seek the healing waters of a magical lake and the care of a legendary medicine man. Reynolds thinks this is all a joke and at first is more upset about missing an important dinner appointment, at which he believes he will be receiving a major promotion, than he is worried that he may actually be in serious danger.
The petty, selfish, irritable side of Reynolds predominates, as he is constantly complaining about what a big inconvenience this excursion is for him, and this makes him an increasingly unlikeable character; with Blue repeatedly threatening him if he misbehaves or tries to escape, one begins to wonder why the kid, who has absolutely nothing to lose, just doesn’t polish his captive off once and for all and just get on with the trip by himself.
But part of the point is that Blue shows enough humanity and latent decency that Reynolds will move past his preconceived notions about this common criminal and start responding to him as a human being. But also serving to connect the doc to his kidnapper is his deepest secret, revealed in intermittent flashbacks, concerning the cancer his own brother died from as a boy.
While police rather ineptly pursue the men as they race across the desert, Reynolds and Blue have a rough encounter with some nasty bikers in a small town, Reynolds is bitten by a rattlesnake but is cleverly, if incredibly, treated for it by Blue, and the two briefly encounter a leftover hippie (Anne Bancroft) who is heading for a convergence and with whom they discuss different approaches to healing and cures.
At Flagstaff, Blue becomes so sick that Reynolds resorts to illegal means to obtain the needed medicine. Eluding the authorities and finally committed to helping his abductor, Reynolds manages to whisk Blue up the mountain to his destination, where a mystical and rather too unspecific a fate awaits the ailing young man.
Although the idea that a speeding car would be able to get all the way across two big states without being apprehended by police cars and helicopters is a lot to swallow whole, Cimino puts enough muscle into the visuals and physical staging of the action that one is swept up in the journey. The standoff between the two men also creates an ample share of elemental drama, even if Blue softens rather sooner than seems plausible and Reynolds disappointingly shows not even a shade of decency and grit until very late in the trip.
Unfortunately, the serious ideas in Charles Leavitt’s screenplay come off as very half-baked, and their speciousness eventually defeats the legitimate effort put into making the characters and situation credible and involving.
To really work, pic would need to have had Reynolds undergo a palpable transformation, and neither the script nor Woody Harrelson’s sincere but constrained performance achieves the desired depth. Until close to the very end, Reynolds becomes increasingly annoying, which could have been alleviated had the character been given more complexity.
Seda doesn’t quite pass as a 16-year-old, but his imposing looks and forceful presence bump up the energy quotient considerably. Again, it would have helped if more details of his past had been filled in because numerous character traits come jumping out without any warning or explanation. But Seda strongly provides the dramatic bedrock for the action.
Bancroft is amusing in her brief role, while other thesps are serviceable in small parts. Still, there are several incongruities, including the presence of a gospel-singing black church congregation straight out of the deep South in small-town Arizona that doesn’t ring very true for the area in question.
Mobility of Doug Milsome’s lensing helps keep things interesting, although Maurice Jarre’s score lays things on a bit thick. Joe D’Augustine’s editing creates tension in numerous sequences, and a final credit announces that “The Sunchaser” was “cut entirely on film.”