The flaw of "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper," opening today at area theaters, can be seen in the apparent confusion of Universal, the studio distributing it. On one hand, the movie goes to maddening lengths to create a tall-tale legend around "D.B. Cooper," the mysterious hijacker who disappeared with $200,000 after bailing out of a jet somewhere along the Washington-Oregon border 10 years ago. On the other hand, the promotional campaign offers $1 million for information leading to the belated arrest of this rascal.
As if this isn't confusing enough, audiences may also be forgiven if they confuse the movie with an interminable episode of "The Dukes of Hazzard." The resemblance seems deliberate, reinforced by a Waylon Jennings theme ballad and a score of such synthetic twanginess that it suggests a bluegrass cattle prod, constantly urging the audience to yuck it up.
Evidently a dodgy project from the outset, "Pursuit" went through at least two directors (John Frankenheimer and Buzz Kulik) before finally dropping in the lap of Roger Spottiswoode, who made a talented debut on "Terror Train."
The movie begins with the hijacking and parachute jump, then purports to trace the tricky, daredevil movements of "Cooper," identified as a former Green Beret named J.R. Meade, disappointingly played by Treat Williams. Eluding an ineffectual dragnet in the Northwest woods, Williams heads for Jackson Hole, where he collects Kathryn Harrold, cast as a supposedly estranged wife who is quickly reconciled to the role of accomplice. In this husband-and-wife variation on the Roadrunner, the larky twosome is pursued in the general direction of the Mexican border by a pair of Wile E. Coyote surrogates -- Robert Duvall as a shrewd, crooked insurance adjuster and Paul Gleason as a wacky doper.
There's a basic, alienating betrayal of good faith right from the start. The filmmakers lead spectators to believe that they'll be in on Cooper's deceptions, only to turn around and treat the spectators as dupes when it suits whim or convenience. The cartoonish nature of the chase plot is meant to be enhanced, in a way that eludes me, by the revelation that Duvall and Gleason were Green Berets, too. In fact, Duvall was the instructor of the younger men. In outmaneuvering his intimidating old sarge, Williams is imagined to be showing his stuff and settling accounts.
Strapped for either wit or charm, this wayward comic odyssey is obliged to grope for heavyhanded payoffs, the most excruciating being a sight gag predicated on the idea that Williams and Harrold are copulating while he drives a pickup down the highway. What may rescue the movie from commercial disgrace are not the desperate vulgarities but the gratuitous thrills, confined to a pair of widely separated stunt sequences. The first depicts a chase along white-water rapids, the second a chase across the desert between biplane (piloted by Williams) and jalopy (driven by Duvall). It's rather like the "Capricorn One" gambit gone one better. "Pursuit" may deserve to sink without a trace, but the stunt sequences could bail it out anyway.
Still, "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper" is the one to patronize if you're in the mood for mindlessness.