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.