"King of the Mountain" probably owes its tenuous existence to the enormous box-office success achieved by "Saturday Night Fever" and expected of "Urban Cowboy." Like those forerunners, the new movie, now at area theaters, was adapted from a magazine article which spotlighted a recreational rite of passage among young men found in overlooked urban enclaves. Called "Thunder Road," a title borrowed from the movies, the article was published in New West in 1978.
The center of activity in "King of the Mountain" is a sprawling exterior location, Mulholland Drive, the famous scenic road that winds about 25 miles through the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica Mountains. According to the story, Mulhound has attracted an unofficial racing association, a group of competitive young daredevils who assemble regularly to race along the road.
In fact, the movie opens with a race cut short by a bust. The title character, Steve, played by Harry Hamlin, easily outdistances a new challenger before being pinned down in the glare of a police helicopter's searchlight. Accepting the inevitable with mocking humor, Steve opens his shirt to soak up a few rays from the hovering chopper.
This introduction is obviously meant to establish the hero as a daring automotive swashbuckler, but you're more impressed by the handicaps confronting the filmmakers. The racing footage is photogenic in a disorienting way. There's an abundance of flashing headlights and screeching sound effects, but in pitch dark the racehorse has no identity, no landmarks, no effective beginning or end.
Moreover, one experiences little subjective illusion of speed or excitement. If it's Steve's sensations we're meant to share, director Noel Nosseck fails to place us in his vehicle with sufficient kinesthetic flair. He lags far behind Peter Yates in "Bullitt," William Friedkin in "The French Connection," Steven Spielberg in "Duel" and "The Sugarland Express" and George Miller in "Mad Max" at the art of exploiting the high-speed chase.
There's also little social interaction among the racing enthusiasts. Steve and the challenger remain aloof while arrangements are made by their seconds. Everyone else gathered on the mountaintop is an anonymous spectator. One can certainly imagine this illicit sport attracting a following, but the movie never clarifies the subculture it purports to find.
Perhaps the most critical liability is the absence of a sexual component in the competition. From "Rebel Without a Cause" through "American Graffiti," it has been understood that sexual pride and advantage were riding on the outcomes of auto races. Perhaps the Mulholland group has transcended corrupting influences on sheer engineering and driving prowess, but if so, it has transcended human interest.
"Saturday Night Fever" and "Urban Cowboy" were more vivid movies because they concentrated on sexual hotspots. Evidently lacking anything comparable up on Mulholland, the filmmakers attempt to insert it by borrowing another environment -- the pop recording industry.
Steve shares a bachelor pad with Buddy (Joseph Bottoms), an aspiring songwriter, and Roger (Richard Cox), a small-time record producer. The romantic interest is a husky-voiced rock vocalist, Tina (Deborah Van Valkenbugh), introduced recording Buddy's tunes. For reasons that appear strictly arbitrary, she falls for Steve when he drops by the session, precipitating a curiously uneventful affair, so the romance is at best a distraction, immaterial to plot complications trumped up on more remote pretexts.
Double-crossed in a recording deal by Roger, Buddy recklessly drives up to Mulholland and permits himself to be bullied into a suicidal race by Cal, a demented ex-king of the mountain played by Dennis Hopper, who may be revitaling his acting career by maturing somewhat prematurely into crazed coothood.
A charming, energetic, expert comic lead in "Movie," where he made his film debut as the naive young boxer Joey Popchik, Harry Hamlin remains in a depressing, narcissistic low gear in "King of the Mountain." Part of the problem is a blah role: Steve is not a protagonist of many words, or even many revealing looks. The young Steve McQueen might have been stumped by the fast-driving cipher, but Hamlin seems incapable of acting his way out from under Steve's reticence and his curly hairdo. His sleepy, dopey performance makes you sorry he didn't borrow livelier attributes from the other five Dwarfs.
"King of the Mountain" is at its most diverting when Hopper is in camera range, muttering conspiratorially to himself or menacing the younger generation with "You're a bunch of punks! I was up here on this hill racin' before you were born!" The fun will be enhanced if you remember him as a young punk in "Rebel With out a Cause." He's got a way to before becoming as much of a crotchety treasure as Walter Brennan or Slim Pickens, but with luck Hopper could emerge as your favorite Hollywood codger of the '80 and '90s.