Director Walter Hill has been wavering between gritty, realistic films (The Long Riders, 48 HRS.) and outlandish forays into pure stylization (the urban-punk musical-western Streets of Fire). Of course, Hill’s gritty movies are stylized in their own way, and he’s at his best when working with strong storytelling rather than simple metaphor (as in the Vietnam-microcosm mess, Southern Comfort).
In his latest project, Crossroads, Hill indulges both sides of his personality. For the first hour and more of its running time, it’s a wonderfully rendered yarn, a typically American kind of journey told in nifty, authentic language. For its denouement, however, Hill suddenly heads into la-la land, and pulls a bizarre shift into the supernatural.
The plot springs from a terrific idea. A guitar prodigy (Ralph Macchio of The Karate Kid) from Long Island is classically trained but has his heart in the blues. He’ll do anything to track down a mythical lost blues song by Robert Johnson, the great bluesman who was murdered before his 21st birthday after recording an output – 29 songs – that changed the way American music sounded.
Macchio has tracked down a harmonica player (Joe Seneca) who was present for Johnson’s recording sessions. But the bluesman won’t give Macchio the lost song unless Macchio breaks him out of his New York nursing home and takes him back to Mississippi.
They break out, head south and Seneca starts teaching the young greenhorn some ot the rules of the road. He claims the kid is technically gifted but utterly without a sense of the blues, so he needs to throw a few hellhounds on his trail.
The kid gets an education fast. They’re dumped onto Highway 61 without any money, thrown into a mugging at a motel and arrested for sleeping in a barn. Macchio also hooks up with a tough-as-nails hitchhiker (Jami Gertz) and he learns the essential blues lesson about unrequited love.
All of this provides great pleasure. The similarity with The Karate Kid, in which Macchio also learned wisdom from an old-timer, is unfortunate, but Crossroads creates its own distinct world; Ry Cooder’s music enhances this immeasurably, although I wish there were even more music in the film.
When the travelers reach Mississippi, and a crossroads at which Johnson and Seneca supposedly sold their souls to the Devil for a taste of blues success, the film starts to hint that this supernatural contract is real, and the finale is an update of The Devil and Daniel Webster, with Macchio trying to pick and strum his way out of Seneca’s contract.
Hill’s films are usually about myth-making, so in a way this conclusion is appropriate. But it’s also just plain weird, coming after the down-to-earth realism that has gone before. And the hokiness of the climactic get-down session is sometimes laughable.
The sequence probably wouldn’t seem so bad if the film hadn’t begun so promisingly. As it stands, it is a strange, seemingly misguided ending to a promising, still largely enjoyable film.
First published in the Herald, March 13, 1986
Huh. Well, I was really thinking a lot about Americana around this time, and I may have really wanted a movie like this to work. It all sounds pretty painful from this distance, and I haven’t watched it since. Screenwriter John Fusco subsequently wrote the Young Guns movies and Hidalgo. The movie’s also got Joe Morton, Harry Carey Jr., and Steve Vai. The actor Robert Judd, who plays Scratch (and died in ’86), has exactly one other movie credit: in the incredibly nasty exploitation picture Fight for Your Life (1977).