Curbside Movie Review: The Junkman

(first posted 12/19/2012)     Once upon a time, a person could watch a movie that contained actual car chases.  Yes, there are still car chases in movies, but the computer-generated stunts simply don’t trigger any adrenaline.  I’m talking actual stunts, chases and crashes where parts are flying and people are jarring their teeth.

So let’s take a look at a great chase movie that is perhaps more obscure than most:  The Junkman, released in 1981.

This film is a mostly autobiographical account of the life of its writer, director, star and financier, H.B. “Toby” Halicki.  Halicki plays Harlan Hollis, a self-made bazillionaire who started his rise to ultra-success by doing auto body work and owning an auto salvage yard, which he parlayed into successful investments in commercial real estate and other interests around the globe.  In another parallel to Halicki’s life, the movie opens with a car chase that doubles as the final scene in Hollis’s newest movie.

Confused yet?  Your best bet is to simply sit back and enjoy the action.

Actually, this film is Halicki’s second; his first was 1974’s Gone in 60 Seconds.  If that title calls to mind the Nicolas Cage movie, there is a connection: While the Cage version did have the involvement of Halicki’s widow, it falls quite short of recapturing the original film’s charisma. Don’t waste your time on it. These two Gone in 60 Seconds movies illustrate that the original is often superior to subsequent versions.

So what about The Junkman?

Having just completed his latest film, mogul Harlan Hollis sets off for the James Dean Festival in Cholame, California on a Saturday morning.  Cruising leisurely in his ’79 Cadillac Eldorado, he is having a so-far uneventful trip to the festival.  What he doesn’t know is that lurking nearby are three assassins who’ve been hired to waste him.

First, there’s Magnum.  Appropriately, he is driving a Dodge Magnum which, from some angles, itself almost appears to be sinister.

Then there’s Black Bird. In a stunning coincidence, she has a black Thunderbird.

Black Bird is far meaner than Magnum, and rather hot in a mature, bad-gal kind of way.  Of course, being married to a raven-haired woman myself, I freely admit my bias.  To sweeten your viewing excitement, she can drive better than Richard Petty.

There is a third assassin in a plane.  Airplanes don’t excite me, so I’m skipping over most airplane action.

Shortly after Hollis starts his trip to the James Dean Festival, he meets up with a woman in a Corvette.  Stopping to chat, Hollis invites her to his daughter’s 16th birthday party that evening.  She knows that Hollis is a loaded and available widower, and says something about dessert after the party; even so, I get the impression she doesn’t intend to spend any time in the kitchen.

At the end of their conversation, an airplane flies overhead and there is an explosion on the ground.  Hollis, thinking the plane dropped something, goes to extinguish the resultant fire.  Then the pilot drops a grenade into the Corvette and the chase is on.

With a plane lobbing grenades towards the Cadillac while a Dodge Magnum and Ford Thunderbird pursue it on the ground,  the chase delivers a full-throttle assault on your senses.  You quickly forget that the acting and production values are not exactly comparable to those of such other chase movies of the period as Smokey and the Bandit.

If one pays close attention, it is obvious Halicki had quite a sharp sense of humor.  In the first half of the movie (the trip to Cholame), there are two instances of a multiple vehicle crash prompting arguments among the drivers.  Both times, a horse-drawn buggy slowly passes the havoc as its passengers literally smirk at the motorists and their mess.

In another instance, Black Bird is swooping in on Hollis when they both pass a Trans-Am, driven by a young English speaker who has painted “Eat My Dust” on its spoiler.

Later, they pass a Javelin, dubbed the Mexican Rose, that has “Comer mi polvo” painted on its tail.

The trip to Cholame contains the first of two chases in the movie, and arguably the better one–the stunts are riskier and there are simply more of them.  Hollis / Halicki jumps the Eldorado twice: Once, in reverse, at the James Dean Festival, and again over an airplane, pictured here for you disbelievers.

Halicki’s choice of an Eldorado seems unorthodox.  To me, the ’79 Eldorado is a very elegant-looking machine that seems out of place while being hammered so hard.  Perhaps Halicki chose the Eldorado since a man of Hollis’s stature would drive nothing less;then again, perhaps he chose it because it looks great from any angle.  Whatever his reasoning, the Eldo absolutely works in this film.

The Magnum and Thunderbird are the definitive vehicles for their respective characters.  Maybe it’s the dark colors, or perhaps the personal-luxury element at work. In any case, they’re driven just as hard as the Eldorado.

The bad guys appear to have finally offed Hollis when his Eldorado smashes into a propane tank and goes through a house.  Au contraire.  Hollis, now widely assumed to be dead, gets a ride back to Los Angeles with a television news reporter who’s been stalking him.  After he acquires a yellow Corvette from country-western singer Hoyt Axton, the chase continues.

Perhaps the highlight of the second chase (through Los Angeles) involves the old lady who has just purchased a brand new Chevrolet Citation.  You see her say a prayer as she ever-so-cautiously drives off the dealer’s lot. Even the salesman is waving good-bye.

Let’s just say that despite her extreme caution, the old lady ends up having a bad day.

The DVD release I viewed had an introduction by Halicki’s widow.  She claims over 150 cars were wrecked for this movie, and other sources claim a total of 250 cars, trucks, and planes.  Either way, that’s a considerable amount of wreckage for a 96-minute film.

So what can one see meeting its fate on film?

Other than the pulse-quickening Dodge Magnum,

you will see about a dozen Citroëns bouncing over the countryside,

and a Chevrolet Citation living up to its fullest potential, courtesy of Hollis’s borrowed Corvette.  This picture does give a new twist on the Citation as an “X-car”.

Halicki also purchased countless Mopar police cars for his movie.  Why is it Mopar police cars never seem to remain intact in movies from this period?

Some of the police cars in the movie, such as this Monaco wagon, are rather rare even for the time. The movie also has a number of Dodge St. Regises; oddly, none of them got wrecked.

There are a number of Chrysler Cordobas, although it is tough to determine if they contain Corinthian leather.

There are so many cars, trucks and boats that it’s nearly impossible to take them all in.  There are even a few Mercedes in the mix, one of which has a passenger named “Farrah”.

Cars weren’t Halicki’s only passion.  It is obvious he adored women, and he was an avowed leg man.  Whenever the movie isn’t showing a car chase, a woman is doing something, whether as a police dispatcher, news reporter or police officer.  My 10-year-old offspring even noticed costume designer Halicki’s love of women when she commented, “That girl needs to wear a shirt with a collar. I can see all of the divide between her boo-boo’s.”  I greatly admire Halicki’s ability to stuff so many things into a short span of time.

I’ll include a quote from the movie that viewers will either love or scoff at. Toward the end, as Hollis’s brother-in-law is driving his Lincoln Mark V, he tells this to a business associate whose Jensen had left him stranded: “Richard, I keep telling you to buy American.  These foreign cars are like toys.  You need to buy American.”  Since Halicki owned cars from all over the world, it’s hard to ascertain if this was said in seriousness or in jest.  You be the judge.

The DVD release I viewed also included a short production-highlights film by Halicki. This short is almost as entertaining as the movie itself. It provides a lot of insight into the magnitude of planning and coordination required to put this entire project together.  Halicki did pretty much everything himself.  You might also notice that the production people seen in the short also appeared in various roles in the film.  In a website interview, Halicki’s widow revealed that if Halicki liked you, it was likely you’d be appearing in his movies.  She said he’d placed neighbors, his banker and various others in assorted roles.

This movie was released in 1981, and viewing it now reminds you it was almost 32 years ago.  The hair styles are painful, the eyeglasses huge, and almost every car a biggie.  It is a shame Halicki was killed in 1989, at age 49, while filming Gone in 60 Seconds 2; his talent at producing an action-packed movie is immense.

The acting and production values are not the sharpest you’ll find; however, the action is formidable and to be highly recommended.  I give The Junkman the green light.

Unless noted otherwise, all pictures are from