I woke up at 11:30 a.m. this morning to my phone alarm, before setting it to snooze and drifting back to sleep for another half-hour. Just after noon, I crawled like caterpillar out of bed, my feet hitting the cold floors of my apartment. My left knee creaked. It’s been creaking a lot lately. My doctor says I have runners knee, so if I want that creaking to stop, I need a healthy mouthful of ibuprofen every day. After creaking my way to the bathroom, I took a hot shower. I kept bumping my elbows against the walls since my shower is small. I dried myself off, dressed myself in black pants and a red flannel, made myself a small breakfast, and set out to do what needed doing today.
This is all just routine. It’s uninteresting. It’s also a little pathetic, but that’s besides the point (my poor excuse is that I’m a student.) The timing of this routine may vary from day to day, but the core principles stay the same. I rise. I shower. I eat. I begin a day of work.
This is not how movies should be. A movie should be a break from that routine. A movie should excite the viewer, transporting them to another world where the can truly invest themselves in the struggles of the characters onscreen. A movie should be all these things, but not all movies are created equal.
Director: Brian A. Miller
Release Date: December 14th, 2018
Backtrace stars Matthew Modine as Macdonald, a bank robber who loses his memory after a bullet puts him out of commission during a bank heist gone wrong. Seven years later, Macdonald is sprung out of prison by a group of mysterious criminals who think they can use him to find where he hid the money all those years ago. After being injected with a drug allowing his lost memories to come flooding back to him, Macdonald must find his hidden stash before Officer Sykes (Sylvester Stallone) and co. catch up to them.
The story starts out with a mild bit of intrigue. After witnessing the initial incident where Macdonald loses his memory, we are shown Macdonald years later, seven into his prison sentence. He is uninterested in prison life, and seems almost content to live out his days in a federal prison cell. Before he can live out that fantasy, he’s spirited away by several individuals working at the prison to begin his journey to find his lost stash. It’s a quick sequence, not a mindblowing work of cinema, but it’s interesting nonetheless. There’s a few nice dolly zooms that capture how disoriented Macdonald is by his budding escape, and the sequence doesn’t overstay its welcome. Before the guards even realize he’s gone, Macdonald is back outside the prison walls. But he’s confused. He clearly, isn’t the man who stole that money all those years ago.
That actually becomes a bit of a problem, but we’ll get to that later. We have some bigger fish to fry at this point. Despite my enjoyment of this sequence, it’s plagued with three problems that persist throughout the movie. The first being this: Backtrace looks very, very cheap. The opening scene of the film was so overexposed that it looked like a police-serial on USA. Turns out, that’s what the entire film looks like. The image quality is unclean, grainy, and too many scenes look washed out and over-lit. The plot of Backtrace is attempting to be gritty, but the flat images and lighting really drag the film down. Much of the action scenes are filmed in handheld, with the camera shaking constantly, disguising the movies poor fight shootouts. Yet it ends up giving the viewer a headache. Sadder still is how infrequent action is in Backtrace. You’d think a film with Stallone in it would bust out a few decent shootouts, but there’s only two in the entire movie. One at the beginning, and one at the end. It’s a disservice, and might be reason enough for many to opt out of Backtrace altogether.
The second problem is with the acting. Now, this isn’t a knock on Matthew Modine or Sylvester Stallone. As much as people like to make fun of Sly, he’s a good actor. In other movies. However, both of these men have so little to bring to these roles. Macdonald is a blank slate, a character who has no flair and no real reason to root for him throughout the film, and he’s our primary protagonist. Modine is a great actor, but he delivers a whiny, half-hearted performance in Backtrace. Macdonald is clearly supposed to be a man in serious pain, living with regret over a crime he doesn’t remember committing, but Modine’s limping performance wilts before it has the chance to bloom. Macdonald could be an interesting character, but only if performed with feeling. Modine does nothing of the sort.
Neither does Sly, for that matter. I’m not even sure Stallone knew he was shooting a movie, because…look. You can’t look bored while you’re acting. You just can’t, unless that’s a part of your character. Stallone is playing a detective who has to deal with both an escaped bank robber and the FBI breathing down his neck for the duration of the movie. Yet, Stallone captures none of that intensity. There is no fire, and there’s no quiet intensity that he’s brought to the table in past movies like this before. Stallone just wants a break for coffee, and for his direct deposit for Backtrace to go through before Friday.
The third problem is the most severe, and it’s what put the nail in the coffin for Backtrace. This film is tired. Hackneyed. Whatever your favorite adjective for generic is, go ahead and use it now. Macdonald is a wrongly accused man. Stallone is a detective who can smell bullshit a mile away, and likes to control his precinct. The officers from the FBI are intrusive and add nothing but conflict. Macdonalds associates are shady individuals who are only after the money. And on and on it goes. Is there a twist ending? Well, with a memory gimmick, why wouldn’t there be? It’s a poor twist though, and in the final scene, the newly-revealed bad guy becomes a mustache-twirling maestro. I swear to god, he goes full Professor Hinkle and starts poorly taunting our hero before being served a lead sandwich. It’s so routine. We’ve seen it all before. And on top of the poor acting, the terrible cinematography, and a nonsensical plot (but I’m not getting into that mess) Backtrace feels very old-hat indeed.
Backtrace is nothing more than routine. It has contented itself to stomping around the well-worn throughway of the action-genre, unable to add an imprint of its own. I would ask you to avoid this film, but I doubt many folks will be able to notice Backtrace. It’s image is not striking nor unique.