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Foster, Hopper Punch Up Gangland Thriller 'Backtrack'

August 27, 1992|GEOFF BOUCHER

It flashes across an electronic read-out screen in the background, almost too quick to notice, but the message "Every murder is sensual" is the heart of Dennis Hopper's 1989 film "Backtrack."

Released on video a few months ago to cash in on the Oscar hoopla surrounding its star, Jodie Foster, "Backtrack" is a surprisingly good gangland thriller that all but side-stepped theater audiences.

Although it has a somewhat tired plot--an unwitting eyewitness flees a horde of bad guys eager to hide their crime--director Hopper applies an unusual spin with a character he plays, the taciturn Mr. Milo. A renowned hit man, Milo is called in to kill Ann Benton (Foster) after she sees a mob leader (Joe Pesci) eliminate an associate, but the mundane assignment gets tricky when Milo becomes romantically obsessed with his intended prey.

Foster stands out in the film, firmly establishing professional artist Benton as a woman willing to exchange just about anything for the life experience that makes her work so topical and, often, cynical. That openness and edge make her dangerously attractive to Milo.

Benton's art, which is more or less poetry shown across electronic billboards and signs, is cleverly used by Hopper to convey the movie's subtext, while other forms of art, from that of Georgia O'Keeffe to American Indian, are used as signposts documenting Benton's escape route.

"Backtrack" also stacks up an impressive ensemble cast built around Hopper and Foster, including Pesci, Dean Stockwell, John Turturro, Fred Ward and Vincent Price. Charlie Sheen even passes through as an ill-fated boyfriend of Benton, while longtime Hopper buddy Bob Dylan mumbles his way through a cameo as a chainsaw-wielding artist.

"Backtrack" (1989), directed by Dennis Hopper. 102 minutes. Rated R.

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