Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976)

Directed by Michael Pressman
Starring Claudia Jennings, Jocelyn Jones, Johnny Crawford, Tara Strohmeier
Rated R

Ah, 1976. It was a simpler time. A time of leaded gas and unfiltered cigs. Of halter tops and cutoffs. Of hitchhiking and road trips. And of holding up banks with sticks of dynamite.

Perhaps that latter item might belong more in a catalog of old Looney Tunes building blocks, but it doesn't seem all that out of place in the world of The Great Texas Dynamite Chase, a fun, low budget, sexploitational riff on the Bonnie and Clyde, criminals-on-the-lam story starring Playboy centerfold Claudia Jennings as Candy and Jocelyn Jones as Ellie-Jo.

Predating Thelma and Louise by a decade-and-a-half, the film is more squarely aimed at entertaining than providing social commentary. And while the plot is on the thin side, the alluring, amiable leading ladies provide ample reason to see the story through.

The drive-in romp marked the directorial debut of Michael Pressman whose future career would include taking the helm for Bad News Bears and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequels and a few other theatrical titles (including the Dan Aykroyd vehicle Doctor Detroit), as well as a lengthy career directing for the small screen.

By the time Dynamite appeared, the redheaded Jennings had already leveraged her status as 1970 Playmate of the Year into a few film and TV roles, and by decade's end would add several memorable titles to her résumé, including Jud (1970), Group Marriage (1974), Gator Bait (1976), Moonshine County Express (1977), and Death Sport (1978). It was enough to earn her the tentative title of Queen of the Drive-In, but sadly her career and life would be cut short in 1979 in a fatal car crash in Malibu.

Meanwhile, super cute, doe-eyed blonde Jones had done a few guest spots on various series and a bit role in the 1975 melodrama The Other Side of the Mountain and later would earn more small parts in film and television -- including Clint Eastwood's third Dirty Harry entry, The Enforcer -- before taking her talents to the stage and the classroom as an acting teacher.

The film begins with Candy racing across an empty Texas field in prison garb, having just escaped.

She meets her sister Pam (Tara Strohmeier) who provides her wheels and a change of clothes. "How you gonna get the money?" Pam ambiguously asks Candy. "Don't you worry, I'm gonna think of something," comes the answer, and Candy soon drives away.

Soon we meet Ellie-Jo waking up late for her job as a bank teller. As she hastily leaves, she tells the man with whom she'd shared the night "I want you out of here when I get back" and races to work.

Ellie-Jo arrives at work only to be fired by her bummer of a boss. She's pleading her case when suddenly Candy arrives with a couple of sticks of dynamite, lighting the one with the longer fuse and directing the tellers to fork over the loot. Ellie-Jo -- clearly fascinated by Candy's boldness -- takes the lead in filling a bag full of cash, answering the objections of her boss by saying "I don't work here anymore."

Probably was a crummy place to work anyhow, what with the jerky boss and the Confederate flag on the wall and all.

We leave with Candy as she eludes the fuzz and heads out of town back to the farm where her father and sister wait for her, leaving the lit stick of dynamite behind to wipe out one of the cop cars as she does.

Candy's father, a widower, is glad to see her return. He's a bit unsure at first when she tells him about robbing the bank, complaining that her time in prison had hardly done much to reform her. But after thinking a bit, he admits that "in a crazy way" he's proud of her. "It makes what's left of our family seem important," he says, gladly accepting the loot. Candy then leaves, her father's admonition to "stay out of trouble" an obvious piece of foreshadowing for what's to come.

We go back to Ellie-Jo, now unemployed and hitchhiking. She's apparently leaving town altogether, dropping her cat off with a friend and announcing she "hitting the road." Her first ride turns all pervy on her, and she ends up left alone on a dusty Texas highway.

Lucky for her, Candy happens along to give her a ride, and after the pair spend a little time appreciating the coincidence of their reunion, Ellie-Jo suggests to Candy they rob another bank. "We make a great team," says Ellie-Jo. "I'm a quick learner, you can teach me all you know, and we can get rich!" Candy is convinced, and a partnership is forged.

The pair attempt their first heist, which begins well...

...but they run into trouble when they discover the bank's money is locked in a safe, and the dynamite they have turns out to be faulty and of no use blowing open the vault. A chase ensues, with the pair stealing a Mustang along the way. They escape after Ellie-Jo tosses a stick of dynamite into the car driven by the policemen chasing them, the cops getting out of the vehicle just in time.

They regroup, planning to get some more reliable dynamite, pull off more robberies, and escape to Mexico. First stop, a dynamite dealer named Jake (Chris Pennock) whom the pair are able to persuade to sell them a case of ammo that actually works.

Jake doubts their story that they plan to do "a little strip mining work." But something about the pair causes him to let down his defenses.

Arrangements having already been made, Candy decides it would be fun to consummate the deal with lucky Jake.

Jake is so grateful, he throws in a shotgun, too, "just in case the dynamite doesn't work." Back on the road they go, and the next robbery -- of the "Loan Star" bank -- goes much better than did the first.

The crime spree continues, their success helped in part because local law enforcement could probably stand to be a little more dedicated to the job.

Along the way they pick up Slim (Johnny Crawford), a young drifter who begins his association with the two as a hostage...

...then eventually becomes an accomplice and before too long Ellie-Jo's lover. A lengthy scene at a high-priced hotel involves some inspired partying by the group, with the bellboy invited to make it a foursome.

The fun doesn't last long, though, as reports of "The Dynamite Women" have already hit the local news, forcing Candy, Ellie-Jo, and Slim to hit the road once more. The crime spree continues, with the routine now involving pretending to take Slim as a hostage in a sequence of put-the-money-in-the-bag-or-he-gets-it scenarios.

Slim gets winged by a shot during one attempt, although the nursing afterwards understandably sets him aright.

Indeed, everything is going swimmingly, as indicated by a montage of robberies, a funny fast-motion cash-counting sequence, and some skinny-picnicking.

The trio make a bad decision, however, by conspicuously going out to eat at a night club where they are spotted and once more find themselves on the run. The chase continues through the final half-hour of the film as they continue to pursue their plan to clean up and cross the border to Mexico and a life of ease.

They're now driving a Rolls, but the law is closing in, and soon all takes a downward turn with a gunfight in which Slim is cut down but the girls escape.

After emerging from a funk following the loss of Slim, they plan one last robbery. "The big haul," explains Candy to Ellie-Jo, "and then we'll make our escape, just you and me."

Is their last attempt successful? Will it all end like Bonnie and Clyde… or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid… or Thelma and Louise?

While certainly derivative, The Great Texas Dynamite Chase is nonetheless a modest success at both storytelling and entertainment, with a fast pace, lots of action, and Jennings and Jones offering above-average hotness not to mention genuine charisma along the way.

Really, they are “The Dynamite Women” in more ways than one.

- Triple S

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