Jack Nicholson brings much richness to his stiff characterisation of Charlie Smith – a border patrol officer in El Paso who becomes involved with corruption, although he is sickened by the behaviour of other guards – his workmates – who are not beyond murdering Mexicans to keep their trade in the illegal importation of “wetback” labour tidy.
The movie intelligently details the plight of illegal Mexican immigrants with sharp contrasts between their condition and the materialistic lifestyle of some Americans.
Occasionally, the film is marred by its excessive commercial leanings, yet the suspense and passion shine through. Valerie Perrine and Harvey Keitel are excellent in supporting roles as Nicholson’s feckless spendthrift wife, Marcy, and his colleague, Cat, respectively.
The main crisis point in the movie comes when the baby of a beautiful young Mexican girl called Maria (Elpidia Carrillo) is kidnapped for sale to a childless American couple and Charlie has to decide what to do about the situation.
Suddenly Charlie has a cause. He is determined to get the baby back. He wants nothing from the mother, but he needs to do something good. He knows that he can’t change the system or bring the wrongdoers to justice, but he feels that for his own salvation he must make one positive gesture.
The task he sets himself brings him into conflict with his partner (Keitel) and his boss, Big Red (Warren Oates). He has a terrible time.
An upbeat ending, shot after the film was completed and in which Nicholson emerges as a traditional hero, failed to give the movie the hoped-for box office clout.