"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, April 12, 2010


For a film that wasn’t well-received commercially and critically when it came out in 1984, Reckless featured several prominent actors early on in their careers, chief among them Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah. They portray young adults living in a dead-end town that has been gutted by the rapid decline of its primary industry. Seen as something of A Rebel Without A Cause (1955) for the 1980s, Reckless features a rebellious protagonist desperate to get out of a town that he feels has nothing left to offer him. Like the similarly themed All the Right Moves (1983), Reckless was the gritty flipside to John Hughes’ wish fulfillment films. While most people think of the ‘80s as a prosperous time in America, films like this one and All the Right Moves remind us of the small towns devastated by the loss of their primary industry (and source of income) and having its workforce depleted through painful attrition. If Reckless is remembered at all, it’s for the breakout performances of Quinn and Hannah, or the fantastic soundtrack of New Wave gems by the likes of INXS and Romeo Void.

The opening shot is of smoke billowing out of a factory that pretty much sets the bleak tone for the film. Johnny Rourke (Aidan Quinn) and Tracey Prescott (Daryl Hannah) meet when they play a game of chicken on a deserted stretch of road – him on a motorcycle, she in a car with her boyfriend (Adam Baldwin) and girlfriends (among them is a young Jennifer Grey in her feature film debut). Her smile as they swerve out of each other’s ways hints at her attraction to this risk-taker. The factory is omnipresent, always lurking in the background. It’s visible in the window next to Rourke’s seat in a class he shares with Tracey at school. Later on, there’s a great shot of Rourke driving past the factory and it dwarfs him, looming large while he looks like an insignificant insect in comparison.

Rourke’s father (Kenneth McMillan) is an abusive drunk and his mother now married to his dad’s supervisor (Dan Hedaya) at the factory. Rourke’s home life is a mess and a pretty strong motivator for getting out of town. On the flip side, Tracey’s parents give her everything she wants so that she never wants to leave but ultimately realizes that this is not enough. Not anymore. She has the most to lose and her decision of whether to stay or go is the toughest one for anyone in the film to make.

Can I just say how cool the dance sequence is in Reckless? Fed up with the tepid elevator music playing at the school dance, Rourke puts in “Never Say Never” by Romeo Void and he and Tracey dance together with delirious wild abandon. As soon as that opening guitar riff starts up and then the drums kick in a few second later, I get goosebumps every time. The camera swirls around Rourke and Tracey, trying to keep up with their bodies, adding to the intoxicating nature of this scene. In some respects, Reckless was the east coast New Wave answer to Valley Girl’s (1983) west coast vibe. There were only a few good New Wave songs to come out of the early ‘80s and this film seems to have most of them.
While the dance sequence features dizzying camera movements, director James Foley keeps the rest of the film pretty simple, refusing to draw attention to the camera, focusing instead on the characters. His direction enhances the story. The dialogue has a very authentic feel to it. These teenagers talk like people their age actually do and what I realized is that it’s not just that this dialogue sounds so real but that teen films nowadays don’t. They’re missing the frankness of Reckless, All the Right Moves and even Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). It’s even more astonishing to learn that Steven Spielberg protégée and future Harry Potter director Chris Columbus wrote the screenplay! What the hell happened to him after such an auspicious start?

Foley has had a frustratingly uneven career, starting off strong with this film and following it up with the much underrated drama At Close Range (1986) with Sean Penn and Christopher Walken. However, he’s also helmed clunkers like Who’s That Girl? (1987) and Fear (1996). Regardless, he will get a free pass for life from me for Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Foley is one of those directors that are only as good as the material he’s given to work with and fortunately, in the case of Reckless, he had an excellent script as a foundation. Producers Edgar Scherick and Scott Rudin asked Foley to direct Reckless a year after meeting him on another project.

Principal photography began in November, 1982 in Weirton, West Virginia, the primary location for Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978). The production shot for 35 days in order to finish filming before the harsh winter weather was to set in. However, the cast and crew still experienced snow on the ground and cold temperatures right from the first day of shooting. For the visual look of the film, Foley and his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus were inspired by the paintings of Edvard Munch because they felt that his style symbolized the emotional turmoil of Rourke.

Another good musical cue is “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde, used when Rourke and Tracey break into their high school. The song kicks in as he tosses various student records in the air while dancing through the halls and then smashes the trophy case with a fire extinguisher. This leads to the film’s rather steamy seduction scene between Rourke and Tracey in the school pool, culminating in a scorching sex scene in the boiler room that raised a few eyebrows back in the day and still generates heat (no pun intended) today.
According to Quinn, Hannah had a difficult time with the sex scenes, claiming at the time that they weren’t in the script. Foley disagreed and he and the actress argued. The actor remembered that he and Hannah had a mercurial relationship and that they “really liked each other and were supportive of each other, and then we really, like, got under each other’s skin and couldn’t stand each other.” In other words, their off-camera relationship often mirrored their on-screen one.

Rourke has all the trappings of a rebel. He’s got the leather jacket, the motorcycle and the disdain for authority. Early on, Tracey’s boyfriend asks him, “Whatever happened to you, Rourke? You used to be normal,” to which he replies, “I grew out of it,” which sums up his rebellious nature rather nicely and echoes that famous exchange in The Wild One (1953): “What are you rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?” Aidan Quinn has the brooding charisma thing down cold and brings an intensity to the role that is ideal for his angry-at-the-world character. That, coupled with his good looks, makes Rourke pretty irresistible to Tracey. Quinn conveys a lot of pain and angst in his character but manages to do so in a way that doesn’t come off as clichéd or forced.

A casting agent friend of Foley’s gave him a Polaroid of Quinn and immediately the director knew that the actor was perfect for the role of Rourke. Within 48 hours, the filmmakers managed to locate Quinn and flew him to Los Angeles for a screen test. The actor was so tired and nervous that when he read the first scene, he started laughing and couldn’t stop. Foley reviewed the footage the next day and realized that “even though he had given an excellent reading, the sequence of Aidan laughing revealed more about his personality and screen potential than anything we could have asked him to do.” After getting the role, Quinn was scared because he did not have any experience making films. As a result, he didn’t sleep for three weeks. He did enjoy making the film but was disappointed by the outcome of it and recalled being “naive enough to be somewhat public about it.” He even warned MGM not to send him out to do publicity because he “wasn’t too keen about it.”

All of Rourke’s rebellious qualities are very attractive to Tracey, a beautiful girl bored with her predictable life and relationship with an overbearing jock boyfriend. Compared to him, Rourke is dangerous and exciting. She’s a cheerleader dating the quarterback of the football team – could her life be any more of a cliché? It’s no wonder she finds herself drawn to Rourke – he represents an exciting break from her predictable life. There’s a nice scene where Tracey takes stock of her “perfect” life and it freaks her out. She’s sick of it, sick of doing what’s expected. She sees Rourke as a way to mix things up a little but doesn’t anticipate just how much her life will change as a result of their relationship. Daryl Hannah is quite good here as she conveys Tracey’s epiphany of sorts.
I have a feeling that a lot of crushes on Hannah were cultivated with this film thanks in large part to her lovely locks of flowing blond hair in a modified Farrah, full lips and gorgeous facial features. Hannah had a good run of films in ‘80s, starting with Blade Runner (1982), Splash (1984), which launched her into the mainstream, The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), and Wall Street (1987). High profile roles for her dried up in the 1990s with the occasional interesting supporting role in something like Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man (1998) or an independent film like Hi-Life (1998), and later a memorable turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films.

Reckless really captures what it feels like to be a teenager with an intimacy in the way it deals with their problems. The film honestly examines the theme of how much does one let another person in? How much do you trust them? These are questions that teens universally wrestle with and are rarely addressed as honestly as this film does. While Rourke openly expresses how he feels at any given moment, Tracey is much more guarded with her true feelings and the film’s climactic moment comes when she finally realizes what she wants. It’s really a shame that Reckless was R rated because more teens should have had access to it but at least there is always home video (and a new DVD release thanks to the Warner Brothers Archives) as a way for people to rediscover this underappreciated film.

Also take a look at Ned Merrill's excellent post on this film over at his blog, Obscure One-Sheet and a fantastic post over at The Moviezzz Blog.


  1. Excellent post J.D. (and thanks for the link!).

    This is one of the most underrated films of the 1980's. I haven't seen it in years and have been meaning to get the Warner Archive disc.

    As for Foley, he has always been underrated, with AT CLOSE RANGE being one of my favorite films of the decade.

    I don't think he can really be blamed for WHO'S THAT GIRL though. Sean and Madonna were an item then, he had just made AT CLOSE RANGE with Sean, and Madonna did the theme song. He even directed some of her videos. So, she probably talked him into directing it.

  2. The Warner Archives disc is nice and the transfer is surprisingly good. Plus, it's just great to have it on DVD.

    I love AT CLOSE RANGE as well. In fact, I do like quite a few of his films - AFTER DARK, MY SWEET is one of my fave neo noir films of the 1990s and CONFIDENCE is another fave of mine so maybe I came off as a bit harsh. And yeah, I don't think WHO'S THAT GIRL was his fault aside from deciding to do the film in the first place, but as you point out, maybe he did as a favor to Penn.

  3. Great post man. I have been a fan of this film for a while but must admit that my attention was drawn to it when my friend who runs the OBSCURE ONE-SHEET blog showed it to me(he is a HUGE fan of the film). I don't know if I saw it on video when it came out. Regardless it was a must-buy from Warner Archive when the disc was released.
    I'm also a big fan of AT CLOSE RANGE.

  4. Excellent article, JD and thanks for the link to my ode to the film! Somewhere, I have the press kit where the filmmakers make mention of the influence of Munch, as you do. At the same time, they determined that red and black would be the primary hues that they would work with, owing, I guess, to the color scheme of the "The Scream."

    When the film came out in very early '84, it took a lot of flak from critics for ripping off ALL THE RIGHT MOVES, not really fair since it was in production well before that film was released. When the film premiered in New York, there was a short piece in one of the NY tabloids, that told of how the film's two stars, Hannah and Quinn, ducked out of the screening early. IIRC, there were some disparaging quotes about the film from one or both actors.

    Rupert, I do recall talking up RECKLESS to you back in the day!

  5. I forgot to mention that I read somewhere that Chris Columbus was so upset with how his first screenplay was filmed by Foley that he was in, or nearly in, tears at the film's opening! :-)

  6. Rupert Pupkin:

    Thanks for the kind words! I too have been a great admirer of this film for years and was always frustrated at its lack of availability on DVD. So, I was pretty stoked when the Warner Archives finally graced us with a copy.

    And isn't AT CLOSE RANGE a good one? My wife turned me on to that film. Still resonates after all these years and the scenes between Sean Penn and Christopher Walken are fantastic!

    Ned Merrill:

    Thanks for the compliments. And I knew I had to give your article a shout-out as it provided the inspiration for me to write something about this underrated film.

    The Munch connection I found on some now-defunct Aidan Quinn fan site which I believe does come from the presskit/production notes.

    I wondered about the connection with ALL THE RIGHT MOVES so thanks for clearing that one up. They are so similar in terms of setting and themes yet distinctive in their approaches to the material.

    Yeah, it's a shame that Quinn and Hannah badmouthed the film when it came out. The feeling I get from Quinn reading more recent interviews is that he regrets that behavior and chocks it up to being young and naive about the biz.

    You comments about Columbus' reaction to the film makes me wonder what his original screenplay was like and how much was it changed during filming. Weird... I think it's the best thing he's ever done! Go figure.

  7. Have not seen this film since its release but I do remember liking it a lot more than the critics at the time. Quinn was definitely in his James Dean mode at the time. A good one J.D.

  8. John:

    I hadn't seen it for years until I recently picked up the Warner Archives disc. It has aged quite well and Quinn is excellent. A sign of things to come from this talented actor. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. I really apreciate your post about «Reckless». This is one of my fav. 80s movies. Actually, yesterday I saw it again and I still don't understand why this movie didn't had more lucky with the critics. Maybe it's because it's not a pure teen movie in a John Hughs sense.(Attention, I Love John Hughs) «Reckless» take us to another level. More than a script where characters looking for love, Johnny actually is looking for a "partner in crime", someone who wants to break with all the roots. Sometimes, everybody wants to do the same thing, but don't have the gutts to do it, right?

    By the way, I would love to have your review about my favourite movie of ALL TIME. «Fire with Fire», it's another teen movie, in quality «Reckless» is much better but I don't know why there's a cult around it...people of all ages - who saw it long ago or who just saw it recently - fall from Joe and Lisa couple. Take a look at my blog if you need some extra info's: www.fire-with-fire.blogspot.com...and keep your good work.

    If you decide to make your review about Fire with Fire, can I post it at my blog, giving you the credits, of course:)??