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Steven Spielberg
Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, Michael Sacks, William Atherton, Gregory Walcott, Steve Kanaly, Louise Latham, Harrison Zanuck
Writing Credits:
Steven Spielberg, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins

The true story of a girl who took on all of Texas ... and almost won.

The Sugarland Express is based on the true story of Lou Jean Poplin, who kidnapped a Texas State Trooper and led the police on a wild chase across the state in an effort to save her son from adoption. This complex role was enough to lure superstar Goldie Hawn back to the screen after a one-year hiatus following her Oscar-winning performance in Cactus Flower. It also marks the feature film debut of a young, now famous, director, Steven Spielberg.

Box Office:
$3 million.
Domestic Gross
$7.500 million.

Rated PG

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby 2.0

Runtime: 110 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 8/17/2004

• Trailer


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


Sugarland Express (1974)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 1, 2004)

Arguably Steven Spielbergís least-seen film, 1974ís The Sugarland Express merits memory mainly due to one distinction: it was his first big-screen affair. Itís also his final film to appear on DVD. Once we forget those two concepts, does Express offer anything of note? Not tremendously, for while it provides a decent flick, it doesnít match up with Spielbergís subsequent successes.

Based on a true story, Sugarland comes set in Texas during 1969. We meet Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) as she goes to visit her husband Clovis (William Atherton) at a Texas correctional facility. She tells him sheís leaving him, as she just got out of a womenís facility and couldnít get back two-year-old son Langston (Harrison Zanuck) from foster care. Clovis agrees to help get him back, and she wants the three of them to head to Los Angeles. She plans to bust him out though heíll be able to leave in four months. Against his better judgment, he goes along with her plan and they leave the minimum-security facility without much trouble.

From there they hitch a ride with the elderly parents of another inmate, but they get pulled over when the man drives too slowly and creates a nuisance. As Officer Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) approaches, they panic and steal the car. Eventually they crash on the side of the road, but they steal Slideís gun when he tries to help. They take him prisoner and make him drive them toward Sugarland, where they plan to reacquire baby Langston.

Unsurprisingly, the authorities start on their tail. Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) heads up the chase. The movie follows the chase, as the cops go after the Poplins while they solely want to get back with Langston and live in peace.

Given Spielbergís reputation as a sentimental, heavy-handed filmmaker, Express maintains a surprisingly even-handed take on matters. By that I mean that he doesnít go for easy emotion, because other elements go for specific concepts. The flick clearly sympathizes with the Poplins, who become pop icons. The massive manhunt earns them fans, and Spielberg often also depicts the police in a negative light. Actually, the film treats all of the participants as fairly negative, for the Poplins donít seem particularly competent either.

Nonetheless, the cops get most of the heat. Given the dimness of the Poplins, the police come across as especially dull since they constantly fall victim to the outlawsí machinations. Express clearly adopts the anti-establishment tone of the era, as it sides with the rebels.

Some exceptions occur, particularly through the depiction of head cop Tanner. He seems like the only rational and thoughtful person in the flick. Most of the police appear dopey, and the Poplins are impulsive and emotional as well. Tanner demonstrates the most reasoned personality in the movie, as he shows the two sides of his dilemma. He needs to stop the Poplins but dreads the extremes to which he must go.

Actually, I questioned some of those elements. The cops go to tremendous extremes to stop two non-violent kidnappers. Sure, the fact they abducted a fellow officer exacerbates things, but it seems illogical that the authorities send so many cars after them and also attempt to use such lethal force. Given that the film comes based on a true story, I donít know how much of this really happened, but it comes across as a stretch.

Much of Express offers a moderately comedic take on things, but Spielberg demonstrates a surprising level of darkness at times. We donít expect that from the usually light-handed director, but the storyís harsher elements receive appropriate exploration. In general, Spielberg lends the flick a subdued tone. He favors the comedy at times but doesnít go for the broad emphasis that might make it a farce.

Does The Sugarland Express succeed wholly? No, for although it explores its topic more than competently, it never truly engages the viewer. The movie presents few overt flaws but it lacks the spark or dynamic tone that made Spielbergís better efforts so good. It fails to become as distinctive either and seems more like the work of a young director than a fully-formed auteur. Thatís appropriate given that it was the work of a young director, though heíd soon emerge as a massive talent with 1975ís Jaws. Express remains a historical curiosity, one that sporadically entertains.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B-/ Bonus D-

The Sugarland Express appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite the age and low budget of the production, the picture looked quite good,

Sharpness was solid. I noticed only a smidgen of softness in a couple of wider shots. Otherwise, the movie remained nicely crisp and well-defined. Minor instances of jagged edges and shimmering came into play throughout the movie, and I saw only a touch of light edge enhancement. A few examples of mild grain crept into the film, but otherwise the movie seemed essentially absent of defects. A speck or two popped up but that was it, as the movie mainly appeared clean.

To reflect the filmís flat and scorched Texas setting, it offered a subdued, brownish palette that the DVD reproduced well. The movie showed tones that consistently seemed clean and appropriately vibrant. The hues rarely seemed flashy or dynamic, but they represented the source material well. Black levels were similarly deep and concise, while the smattering of low-light shots came across as clean and appropriately distinctive. Overall, the image of Express was very positive.

Since the DVDís case cited the soundtrack of The Sugarland Express as Dolby Digital 2.0, that implied a surround mix. However, the track was clearly monaural, which was fine given the vintage of the film. Speech seemed fairly natural and firm, with no issues connected to intelligibility or edginess. Effects lacked much range, as they usually sounded moderately dull and bland. However, they lacked problems with distortion and seemed acceptably concise. Music was surprisingly dynamic. The score didnít soar, but the music was nicely rich and vibrant most of the time. Nothing about the audio seemed stunning, but it worked more than adequately for a flick of this oneís age and budget.

As for extras, Express comes equipped with only one: its theatrical trailer. Itís a disappointment that the set fails to present more information about the film given its status as Spielbergís first.

With The Sugarland Express, Steven Spielberg fans can finally complete their DVD collections, as itís the final film of his to come out on the format. The movie works moderately well on its own but doesnít match up with his better flicks. The DVD presents very good picture with decent audio but lacks substantial supplements. Spielberg aficionados need to give Express a look, but donít expect a classic.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.4285 Stars Number of Votes: 21
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