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Flashback (1990)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“The yippie and yuppie. Only a vowel stands between them.”

With a different cast this movie might not have worked at capturing the flavor of the periods which it depicts. However, it succeeds: showing no matter how much things have changed from the time of the countercultural apogee of the 60's, some very important things have not. Although Flashback has serious themes, much of the film focuses on humorous ones. If you have a pronounced aversion to “hippies” and everything about them and their time, you probably will not enjoy this movie. Everyone else should find something to like.

Released in 1990, the film opens with depictions of everyday life in “yuppified” America. Leaving these scenes -- which should still seem quite familiar in most respects -- the camera eventually shows San Francisco's Golden Gate and displays the year as 1989. Concentrating on one building of the San Francisco skyline, the camera focuses in on the local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Clean-cut twenty-something (26) John Buckner (Kiefer Sutherland) enters the office of his superior: Stark (Paul Dooley).

As J. Edgar Hoover looks on from a picture on the wall, Stark asks Buckner if the name Huey Walker means anything to him. John answers that it doesn't. Stark then tells Buckner about Huey Walker (Dennis Hopper): a former “radical jester” of the 60's protest movement. In 1969 Huey embarrassed Spiro Agnew (then the Vice President) at an event in Spokane WA, was charged with a minor offense from that incident, but then escaped from FBI custody. For the last twenty years Walker has been underground, but was taken into custody only recently in San Francisco after an anonymous tip. Buckner asks Stark why the FBI still wants Walker. Stark makes it clear that the original incident means little now, but that Walker's escape, which made the FBI “look foolish,” lies behind the current effort to put Walker behind bars. Stark assigns Buckner to take Walker from his point of capture in San Francisco to Spokane, where he will face the “justice system.”

As Buckner leaves, Stark looks at Walker's picture on the cover of an old Life magazine. That cover presents a picture of Dennis Hopper looking like his role in Easy Rider captioned “Court jester of the radical left.” While Stark gazes at the picture and apparently thinks back to those times, Jimi Hendrix's “All Along The Watchtower” takes over the soundtrack. In this film, which makes so many references to the late 60's, the music of that time playing in the soundtrack has a crucial role in creating the setting for the action. As someone who was entering young adulthood in the late 60's, for me that music resonates strongly. As little else could, it relays the flavor and vibrancy of the era.

As the song's lyric begins with “There must be some kinda way oughta here” Buckner and another FBI agent walk down a row of jail cells to the one holding Huey Walker, who looks the part with a ponytail and substantial beard. Huey shows his “jester” nature with irreverent banter as Buckner takes him into custody. When the car in which they ride passes the turn off to the local airport, Huey notices and Buckner tells him they will take the train to Spokane since that area has fog. When giving Buckner his tickets, Agent Prager (Tom O'Brien) tells him the train has a two hour lay-over scheduled in Marsden, OR. As Buckner and Walker walk through a classic train station, Canned Heat's “On the Road Again” starts on the sound track. Walker almost seems to be dancing to the music as they board their train.

The journey to Marsden proves to be far more eventful than Buckner expected. Like once before, Huey Walker escapes FBI custody, this time with a little help from Sparkle (Kathleen York). By the time they reach Marsden, Huey has completely turned the tables on Buckner. Huey has the ID, the official looking clothes and clean-shaven look and passes as the FBI agent to local Sheriff Hightower (Cliff De Young). Instead of Walker, Buckner gets jailed for the lay-over. Huey, posing as Buckner, walks out of the sheriff's office and heads to a local bar, where he meets two other veterans of the 60's: Barry (Richard Masur) and Hal (Michael McKean). Both play significant parts in the remainder of the film. In addition to the characters already mentioned, Carol Kane plays perhaps the most charming part in the film: Maggie. However, giving the storyline that far would spoil too many of the twists and surprises which this movie has to reward its viewers.

In this film Huey Walker makes a statement: “The 90's are going to make the 60's look like the 50's.” That has not worked out in the way which the scriptwriter probably meant. Although events often run in cycles, they rarely repeat earlier eras closely. Each generation has its own characteristics which lead to major differences. However, some things today do seem common with the 60's: the desire for individual self-discovery, rising dissatisfaction with mainstream styles of living and a growing number of questioners of the “establishment.” I suspect that most readers of this review may welcome those trends, as I do. If you belong in that group, then I think you will greatly enjoy Flashback.

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