Flashback (1990) Film Review: Easy Rider Got Old

Late last night, when I should’ve been sleeping, I watched Flashback (Franco Amurri) on Netflix. It’s a buddy movie from 1990, and it fulfills its genre conventions so overtly that it now reads like a satire of an era of filmmaking that drew to a close at the end of the ‘80s.

Flashback opens with a montage of images including Nancy Reagan’s infamous say no to drugs speech, Lycra clad workouts, and general cultural snapshots that were likely relevant back in the ‘90s, but now just serve to date the film.

The first scene in Flashback contains a moment of clear exposition, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. There’s no subtlety to the scripting or narrative arc, and it progresses like an exercise from a Joseph Campbell book or lecture. But as a curio there’s something in Flashback that elevates it from its temporal constraints.

Yuppies and Hippies

FLASHBACK, Kiefer Sutherland, Dennis Hopper,  1990. (c) Paramount
FLASHBACK, Kiefer Sutherland, Dennis Hopper, 1990. (c) Paramount

The film stars Kiefer Sutherland (The Lost Boys, 24) as young and idealistic FBI agent John Buckner, tasked with transferring aging and incarcerated hippie Huey Walker (Dennis Hopper) across the United States. Flashback’s story riffs on the influential John Hughes film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), John Cusack’s The Sure Thing (1985), and the excellent Robert De Niro movie Midnight Run (1988).

Our g-man is a by the book figure who takes care of his health, he watches what he eats, and his watch beeps every time he needs to take his vitamins. Huey derides John’s life choices:

“When I was your age, hell, I was even younger than you.”

It’s a statement of contrasts, it highlights Huey’s perspective on life, and it’s an early indicator of the type of conflict that will define the rest of the film. Huey toys with his government sent baby sitter – he doses John with LSD, and in general he conducts a war of sorts and fashions himself as an insurgent.

Rocking ’60s Soundtrack

There’s a great soundtrack too that includes Hendrix, Dylan, and other relics from the ‘60s, and it’s hard to watch Flashback without thinking of Easy Rider (there’s even a moment where Huey references the film). There’s a sense of legacy, and Flashback is definitely grounded in popular culture histories and tropes.

Dennis Hopper in Flashback.
Dennis Hopper in Flashback.

Dennis Hopper does well as an aging hippie, and alongside Sutherland, he manages to imbue a film that’s almost swallowed up by its narrative choices and obvious storytelling cues, with a sense of actorly direction.

That’s what films of this ilk are known for, the buddy pairing of its lead characters, and Flashback riffs on this convention, admittedly with little creativity. But there are some surprises on the journey, and the conflict between John’s yuppie aspirations and Huey’s more liberal perspective on the world makes for some funny moments.

But Hopper’s Huey isn’t quite the harmless hippie that he first appears to be, and John, with his youthful and naïve outlook, falls prey to his prisoner’s machinations. There’s a weight to Hooper’s depiction of an aging hippie who dreams of freedom (even if there’s an inherent stereotype at play in the narrative), and his performance does lend Flashback some originality.

Storytelling Constructs and Conventions

For me, though, it’s the obvious construction of the story, the clear beats that it hits, the on the nose writing, and its rigid three act structure that makes the film interesting to watch. It’s easy to forget that our mass media myths haven’t always been slick or polished, and although our contemporary storytelling has become ever more sophisticated, and frequently artistic too, it hasn’t always been this way.

Flashback reminds us of a time where genre pieces were hip, and the stories told were much smaller in scope. Filmmaking is cheaper now, we can say a lot more with a lot less, but back in the early ‘90s even a low budget studio piece still cost a lot.

Flashback arrived just before the indie filmmaking revolution changed things forever. Right before Reservoir Dogs (1992) or Reality Bites (1994), Flashback arrived to minimal fuss. Audiences were given a safe movie, one that lacked imagination in terms of its structure, and relied instead on the acting to lend it something more than the sum of its parts.

If I’d watched Flashback in the ‘90s I would’ve described it as derivative, I would’ve recommended watching any number of ‘80s alternatives, but now, from the comfort of 2015 and the late night ease that allows me to watch it on Netflix, my opinion is different.

Dated but Entertaining Cinema

FLASHBACK, Kiefer Sutherland, Dennis Hopper, 1990
FLASHBACK, Kiefer Sutherland, Dennis Hopper, 1990

Thanks to Hopper’s performance, and Sutherland’s youthful FBI agent, Flashback stands the test of time better than some of its contemporaries. It’s a dated film, one that clearly belongs to its era, but for modern audiences it’s an interesting piece of cinema, and its functions as a time capsule of sorts.

It’s a film about a yuppie from the ’90s, forced to escort an old hippie from the ’60s across the country from one jail to another.  Our protagonist is an FBI agent, he’s a product of his time, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that John and Huey aren’t so different after all, and their respective experiences are similar. This is obviously a stereotypical narrative choice, but Flashback does manage to deal with this aspect of its story with some care and thought.

There’s an interesting subtext to the film as well, with its sense of nostalgia, seen mostly through Huey’s older eyes, for the ’60s and the freedom it promised. Huey found himself incarcerated and his physical prison that takes the form of metallic handcuffs, stands as a metaphor of sorts for the real world experiences of the hippies as they grew up and away from their decade of temporary enlightenment.

For the most part Flashback is a kitsch nod to hippie culture. It plays their songs, it uses the right lingo, but it never manages to capture the tone accurately. It relies too heavily on Dennis Hopper and his real world experiences for the film to stand on its own two feet. But for fans of Hopper and his cinematic work like Easy Rider there’s more than a little nostalgia evoked.

The Times They Are A Changin’

Filmmaking has become better democratized, and since Flashback’s release everything about the industry has changed. Indie filmmakers, although not as fortunate as their late ‘90s equivalents, can make films with relative ease. But Flashback reminds us of a time before Tarantino, a time when Blockbuster cinema was dominated by actors, rather than big budget spectacle.

Flashback is an aptly named film that suits a late night screening. It’s far from excellent, and there are better examples of this type of story, but it’s central pairing does lend it something unique. The ending is emotive, the film plays out to a Bob Dylan tune, and Hopper and Sutherland bring creativity to an otherwise formulaic film with central performances that make Flashback worth revisiting.

“Once we get out of the ’80s, the ’90s are gonna make the ’60s look like the ’50s…” Huey Walker

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