28 March 2005 | chrisdfilm
vastly underrated neo-noir in 70s Los Angeles
This is a really superb neo-noir and simultaneously realistic look at downtown Los Angeles in the beginning of the seventies. Jason Miller is perfectly cast as Cooper, the morose ex-carny-roustabout-turned-lower-echelon-crime figure. He functions as a semi-independent mob overseer of the storage and fencing of stolen merchandise for an eclectic variety of underworld thieves that cut across all racial divides. The crux of the story involves Cooper trying to close a deal on the purchase of a whole block of abandoned rail warehouses in the derelict 5th and Alameda area of downtown L.A. If he can't pull it off, it may mean the end of not only his career but his life. Director Robert Mulligan is an extremely uneven director having helmed decent pictures like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE SPIRAL ROAD, UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE and BABY, THE RAIN MUST FALL as well as sleepers like THE OTHER. But he's also had his share of clunkers like SUMMER OF '42. However, THE NICKEL RIDE is his masterpiece. Many of things that others seem to find fault with in the film is exactly what makes the picture so unpretentious and sublime. You really have to pay attention to the dialogue and interaction of characters to get the back story and relationships. Something that most viewers are either unable or unwilling to do. They want everything handed to them on a silver platter. The beauty of this film lies not only in the exceptional, low-key, non-showy performances from every single actor involved, but also the visceral evocation of the dying-on-the-vine area of downtown L.A. -- whole blocks of which have not changed much since the making of this film. Equally brilliant is the almost imperceptible building of suspense through the gradual ratcheting-up of understandable paranoia in Cooper's character. By the time of the climax the unseen aura of impending doom -- a feeling which is so borderline we're not sure if Cooper is right-on or is imagining the whole thing -- is really disturbing. There are a couple of violent shock sequences in the last third of the picture that really pack a wallop because of the orchestration of elements. As mentioned by someone else here at IMDb, THE NICKEL RIDE does take the same low-key genre approach as similar neo-noir FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE and HICKEY AND BOGGS -- and it stacks up very favorably alongside them, easily equaling their masterpiece status. Highly recommended. However, the movie was such a flop on initial release I doubt Fox will ever release it on DVD. But keep your eyes peeled because they do run it occasionally letterboxed on the Fox Movie cable channel.