Macdonald (Matthew Modine) attempts to rob a bank, but it goes terribly wrong. He’s left as the only surviving robber, with full-blown amnesia and a $20m stash hidden somewhere in an abandoned concrete factory. A group of young criminals release him from prison and attempt to restore his memory, whilst the police, led by Sykes (Sylvester Stallone), chase them down. The 72-year-old New York actor, despite being top-billed, doesn’t do much here other than just wander around as a gruff detective, as stiff as the abundant botox on his face.
Modine, on the other hand, is one of the film’s few saving graces. He throws himself into the role with relish, taking what is a relatively thin concept and giving it plenty of flavour and also a touch of pathos. It’s soon revealed that he’s no hardened bank robber, but a blue-collar worker forced by financial desperation to take on the role of a criminal. Macdonald and his accomplices used to work in a concrete factory, where bosses have siphoned off pension funds in order to get big loans from the bank, bankrupting the company from the inside. The robbery is some form of revenge.
Vulture capitalism as the culprit behind criminal activity is a recurring theme in heist films (such as Zach Braff’s Going in Style, 2017). In Backtrace, it gives Modine an extra layer of depth to play with. The locations – a world of foreclosed homes, abandoned factories and decaying lots – give the film a creepy feel and also a certain edge.
Despite these effective elements, Backtrace is a mostly drab experience. The dialogue is almost exclusively descriptive. Lines are often repeated, lest audiences too are afflicted from amnesia. The action scenes are hamstrung by a limited budget blown on hiring Stallone and Modine. It’s often the sheer lack of imagination of the filmmaker that shines the most. The gunfights at the opening and the closing of the film consist mostly of men firing at each other from behind a shelter. The camerawork is also quite repetitive and unimaginative. The camera is constantly moving and spinning around, even in the very basic shot/reverse shot sequences. It gets a little nauseating and dizzying after a while.
Ultimately, Backtrace isn’t a disaster. Modine’s performance is strong enough to keep you going. It’s a pity that the director’s hands aren’t as talented and skilled. It’s available on VoD in January 2018.