Watching Brian A. Miller’s risible amnesiac-thriller Backtrace, one would come away with the idea that hard-working police detectives spend 18 hours a day staring at a murder board, complete with string to link the timelines and Polaroid photos for suspects.
Besides a complex (and illogically photographed) finale shoot-out and one scene in the beginning in which Sylvester Stallone belts out his best Al Pacino/ Heat (1995) impersonation, that pretty much encapsulates his entire role. Forever chained to a nondescript office staring at said board and whose attention is drawn away only when a fellow detective calls out various hotline tips, Stallone looks and acts tired. Alas, Backtrace itself looks and feels tired, dated by crime film swagger that’s been done much, much better hundreds of times over.
Fairing no better is Matthew Modine as the singularly named bank robber MacDonald … no doubt meant to recall the hard-boiled exploits of Donald Westlake’s “Parker” persona. The one interesting wrinkle thrown into the otherwise staid mix is Modine’s predicament. Involved in a double-cross minutes after he and his crew knock over a bank and steal 20 million dollars, his injuries in the ensuing gunfight leave him with memory loss and, not surprisingly, holding the bag for the entire crime.
The film’s jump in time of seven years promises even more interesting things as MacDonald, now locked up in a mental hospital for the criminally insane, becomes the target for a whole group of enterprising younger criminals (led by Ryan Guzman) whose plan is to break MacDonald out and manipulate his foggy memories as a road-map to locate a portion of the money he buried before walking into the violence that left him broken.
How they do this, involving a trial drug injected directly into the spinal cord and the ensuing triple crosses of good guys turning bad and bad guys turning good, plays out over a laborious 80 minutes of unimaginative dialogue and gun-carrying militancy that believes in forced machismo and beleaguered crime movie tropes.
Stallone, recently so world-weary and authentic in Creed II, barely registers here as anything more than the star power required to generate funding. Likewise, Matthew Modine isn’t given much to do, besides cringing and collapsing every time his memories try to come flooding back. I suppose part of the glorious curse of Christopher Nolan’s trendsetting Memento (2000), which powerfully charted the tense weight of someone struggling to reclaim their memories in the gutters and alleyways littered with criminal deviance, is that too many people have tried to interpret and reclaim that style for themselves.
Unfortunately, Backtrace doesn’t even get close. At times, small-scale action thrillers like these — see Black Water, for example — succeed because they understand what they are and don’t try to become serious or audacious. Backtrace bends over backwards to be serious, even providing a cops and robbers meet at the end that feels so wrong-headed, it seems like it’s following its own characteristic fogginess.
Backtrace opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, December 14.