Thanks to the Watergate scandal, the 1970s was a fantastic decade for paranoid conspiracy thrillers with such fine examples as The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and All the President’s Men (1976) among the very best of that era. Audiences had become cynical and jaded about their government and were receptive to films that questioned authority. By the end of the ‘70s, a certain amount of fatigue set in and people wanted to see more upbeat fare like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) – escapist entertainment. By the 1980s, it was getting harder for conspiracy thrillers to attract mainstream audiences with rock solid films like Blow Out (1981) and Cutter’s Way (1981) failing at the box office. The little-seen Flashpoint (1984) also deserves to be mentioned with these other two films as one of the best thrillers to come out of this decade.
Logan (Kris Kristofferson) and Wyatt (Treat Williams) are two United States Border patrolmen that serve in the worst performing sector in Texas. So much so, that their boss (Kevin Conway) has brought in a pencil-pusher from Washington, D.C. to demonstrate a new scanning system that involves geo-sensors buried in the ground that will pick up an illegal immigrant trying to cross the border. Once the sensors are in place not as many agents will be needed, which means roughly two-thirds of their staff will be fired. Understandably upset at the prospect of planting the very technology that will conceivably cost them their livelihood; Logan and Wyatt continue to do their job.
One day while out on a call, Logan nearly crashes his jeep and in the process uncovers a vehicle buried in the ground. After doing some digging, he finds $800,000 and shows Wyatt what he found. Further searching uncovers a rifle and a license plate that dates back to 1963. They decide to check on the money and if it’s legit they’ll keep it in case they’re fired. Logan and Wyatt soon find out the dead guy in the jeep was not your average crook and cross paths with a hard-nosed FBI agent by the name of Carson (Kurtwood Smith) who arrives to take charge of a drug bust.
Logan is the laid-back veteran who’s been around long enough to know how to work the system while Wyatt is a young hothead that believes he can still make a difference. They make a good team, complimenting each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams play well off each other and are believable as a duo that has worked together for some time. This is conveyed in the way they interact with each other, like the scene where Logan and Wyatt come across two women (played by Tess Harper and Jean Smart) whose car broke down in the desert. While checking out the engine the two men think up an excuse to keep these lovely ladies around long enough to take them out for a night on the town.
Williams is well-cast as the quick-tempered Wyatt, playing him as a man who hasn’t had the integrity beat out of him by the system. It exists in Logan too, but it has been lying dormant until the drug bust case and the appearance of the FBI agent that goes with it awakens the feeling. Kristofferson does a nice job of playing a guy who isn’t as jaded about the world as he would like others (and maybe himself) believe. Wyatt almost has himself convinced, but this case continues to gnaw away at him and he finally has a reason to give a shit about something again.
The always watchable Kurtwood Smith is excellent as the no-nonsense Carson. He takes what could have been a typical antagonist role and makes it special in a scene where Carson questions Logan’s decision to pass up a promising career in the military to be a border patrol guard out in the middle of nowhere. It’s a wonderfully acted monologue as the FBI agent lays it all out for Logan:
“The law of supply and demand … Your fucking job depends on those wetbacks. And if we didn’t have ‘em, we’d invent them. Otherwise, how would your department justify the millions it gets from Congress each year? It’s the American way, pal. Supply and demand. And when the supply is lacking you create it. Every morning I get up and I thank God for drugs and murder and subversion. Because without them we’d all be out of a job.”
Logan thinks he knows how things work, but he meets his match with the amoral Carson who has no illusions about what he does and why. Smith nails this scene without any flash – just straightforward acting with a slight air of menace as he portrays a man that Logan could have easily become if he hadn’t chosen to be a border patrolman.
Flashpoint received mixed reviews from the critics that saw it. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Flashpoint is such a good thriller for so much of its length that it’s kind of a betrayal when the ending falls apart. Why did they try so hard and then give up at the finish line?” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Tannen’s strength is his ability to grab his audience’s interest quickly and to hold on to it, even by the most superficial means. Even when the movie doesn’t entirely make sense, it manages to be effective.”
Flashpoint is an engrossing mystery that gradually reveals itself the deeper Logan and Wyatt become involved in it. The film only gets more interesting as the scope of the conspiracy becomes known and we’re right there with our two protagonists as they uncover it. It is refreshing to see a thriller that eschews wall-to-wall action and convenient coincidences that plague many contemporary thrillers in favor of two protagonists that actually use their intelligence and abilities to figure things out. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its exciting moments, like when a wounded Logan outmaneuvers three armed antagonists using his wits as much as his marksmanship.
That being said, Flashpoint places an emphasis on the duo’s savvy and keen observations of a given scene by studying things like tire tracks or surveying the terrain. The problem Logan and Wyatt face is that they get involved in something that puts them in grave danger. The film didn’t do very well because it flew in the face of the feel-good capitalism of the Reagan era by not only criticizing the problem of illegal immigration in America, but also the dirty secrets the U.S. government keeps. Flashpoint’s commercial failure can be chalked up partly to bad timing and now the time is right for it to be rediscovered.
Check out Sean Gill's fantastic review of this film over at his blog - Junta Juleil's Culture Shock.