For a film that wasn’t well-received commercially and critically when it came out in 1984, Reckless featured several prominent actors early on in their careers, chief among them Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah. They portray young adults living in a dead-end town that has been gutted by the rapid decline of its primary industry. Seen as something of A Rebel Without A Cause (1955) for the 1980s, Reckless features a rebellious protagonist desperate to get out of a town that he feels has nothing left to offer him. Like the similarly themed All the Right Moves (1983), Reckless was the gritty flipside to John Hughes’ wish fulfillment films. While most people think of the ‘80s as a prosperous time in America, films like this one and All the Right Moves remind us of the small towns devastated by the loss of their primary industry (and source of income) and having its workforce depleted through painful attrition. If Reckless is remembered at all, it’s for the breakout performances of Quinn and Hannah, or the fantastic soundtrack of New Wave gems by the likes of INXS and Romeo Void.
The opening shot is of smoke billowing out of a factory that pretty much sets the bleak tone for the film. Johnny Rourke (Aidan Quinn) and Tracey Prescott (Daryl Hannah) meet when they play a game of chicken on a deserted stretch of road – him on a motorcycle, she in a car with her boyfriend (Adam Baldwin) and girlfriends (among them is a young Jennifer Grey in her feature film debut). Her smile as they swerve out of each other’s ways hints at her attraction to this risk-taker. The factory is omnipresent, always lurking in the background. It’s visible in the window next to Rourke’s seat in a class he shares with Tracey at school. Later on, there’s a great shot of Rourke driving past the factory and it dwarfs him, looming large while he looks like an insignificant insect in comparison.
Rourke’s father (Kenneth McMillan) is an abusive drunk and his mother now married to his dad’s supervisor (Dan Hedaya) at the factory. Rourke’s home life is a mess and a pretty strong motivator for getting out of town. On the flip side, Tracey’s parents give her everything she wants so that she never wants to leave but ultimately realizes that this is not enough. Not anymore. She has the most to lose and her decision of whether to stay or go is the toughest one for anyone in the film to make.
Can I just say how cool the dance sequence is in Reckless? Fed up with the tepid elevator music playing at the school dance, Rourke puts in “Never Say Never” by Romeo Void and he and Tracey dance together with delirious wild abandon. As soon as that opening guitar riff starts up and then the drums kick in a few second later, I get goosebumps every time. The camera swirls around Rourke and Tracey, trying to keep up with their bodies, adding to the intoxicating nature of this scene. In some respects, Reckless was the east coast New Wave answer to Valley Girl’s (1983) west coast vibe. There were only a few good New Wave songs to come out of the early ‘80s and this film seems to have most of them.
While the dance sequence features dizzying camera movements, director James Foley keeps the rest of the film pretty simple, refusing to draw attention to the camera, focusing instead on the characters. His direction enhances the story. The dialogue has a very authentic feel to it. These teenagers talk like people their age actually do and what I realized is that it’s not just that this dialogue sounds so real but that teen films nowadays don’t. They’re missing the frankness of Reckless, All the Right Moves and even Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). It’s even more astonishing to learn that Steven Spielberg protégée and future Harry Potter director Chris Columbus wrote the screenplay! What the hell happened to him after such an auspicious start?
Foley has had a frustratingly uneven career, starting off strong with this film and following it up with the much underrated drama At Close Range (1986) with Sean Penn and Christopher Walken. However, he’s also helmed clunkers like Who’s That Girl? (1987) and Fear (1996). Regardless, he will get a free pass for life from me for Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Foley is one of those directors that are only as good as the material he’s given to work with and fortunately, in the case of Reckless, he had an excellent script as a foundation. Producers Edgar Scherick and Scott Rudin asked Foley to direct Reckless a year after meeting him on another project.
Principal photography began in November, 1982 in Weirton, West Virginia, the primary location for Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978). The production shot for 35 days in order to finish filming before the harsh winter weather was to set in. However, the cast and crew still experienced snow on the ground and cold temperatures right from the first day of shooting. For the visual look of the film, Foley and his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus were inspired by the paintings of Edvard Munch because they felt that his style symbolized the emotional turmoil of Rourke.
Another good musical cue is “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde, used when Rourke and Tracey break into their high school. The song kicks in as he tosses various student records in the air while dancing through the halls and then smashes the trophy case with a fire extinguisher. This leads to the film’s rather steamy seduction scene between Rourke and Tracey in the school pool, culminating in a scorching sex scene in the boiler room that raised a few eyebrows back in the day and still generates heat (no pun intended) today.
According to Quinn, Hannah had a difficult time with the sex scenes, claiming at the time that they weren’t in the script. Foley disagreed and he and the actress argued. The actor remembered that he and Hannah had a mercurial relationship and that they “really liked each other and were supportive of each other, and then we really, like, got under each other’s skin and couldn’t stand each other.” In other words, their off-camera relationship often mirrored their on-screen one.
Rourke has all the trappings of a rebel. He’s got the leather jacket, the motorcycle and the disdain for authority. Early on, Tracey’s boyfriend asks him, “Whatever happened to you, Rourke? You used to be normal,” to which he replies, “I grew out of it,” which sums up his rebellious nature rather nicely and echoes that famous exchange in The Wild One (1953): “What are you rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?” Aidan Quinn has the brooding charisma thing down cold and brings an intensity to the role that is ideal for his angry-at-the-world character. That, coupled with his good looks, makes Rourke pretty irresistible to Tracey. Quinn conveys a lot of pain and angst in his character but manages to do so in a way that doesn’t come off as clichéd or forced.
A casting agent friend of Foley’s gave him a Polaroid of Quinn and immediately the director knew that the actor was perfect for the role of Rourke. Within 48 hours, the filmmakers managed to locate Quinn and flew him to Los Angeles for a screen test. The actor was so tired and nervous that when he read the first scene, he started laughing and couldn’t stop. Foley reviewed the footage the next day and realized that “even though he had given an excellent reading, the sequence of Aidan laughing revealed more about his personality and screen potential than anything we could have asked him to do.” After getting the role, Quinn was scared because he did not have any experience making films. As a result, he didn’t sleep for three weeks. He did enjoy making the film but was disappointed by the outcome of it and recalled being “naive enough to be somewhat public about it.” He even warned MGM not to send him out to do publicity because he “wasn’t too keen about it.”
All of Rourke’s rebellious qualities are very attractive to Tracey, a beautiful girl bored with her predictable life and relationship with an overbearing jock boyfriend. Compared to him, Rourke is dangerous and exciting. She’s a cheerleader dating the quarterback of the football team – could her life be any more of a cliché? It’s no wonder she finds herself drawn to Rourke – he represents an exciting break from her predictable life. There’s a nice scene where Tracey takes stock of her “perfect” life and it freaks her out. She’s sick of it, sick of doing what’s expected. She sees Rourke as a way to mix things up a little but doesn’t anticipate just how much her life will change as a result of their relationship. Daryl Hannah is quite good here as she conveys Tracey’s epiphany of sorts.
I have a feeling that a lot of crushes on Hannah were cultivated with this film thanks in large part to her lovely locks of flowing blond hair in a modified Farrah, full lips and gorgeous facial features. Hannah had a good run of films in ‘80s, starting with Blade Runner (1982), Splash (1984), which launched her into the mainstream, The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), and Wall Street (1987). High profile roles for her dried up in the 1990s with the occasional interesting supporting role in something like Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man (1998) or an independent film like Hi-Life (1998), and later a memorable turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films.
Reckless really captures what it feels like to be a teenager with an intimacy in the way it deals with their problems. The film honestly examines the theme of how much does one let another person in? How much do you trust them? These are questions that teens universally wrestle with and are rarely addressed as honestly as this film does. While Rourke openly expresses how he feels at any given moment, Tracey is much more guarded with her true feelings and the film’s climactic moment comes when she finally realizes what she wants. It’s really a shame that Reckless was R rated because more teens should have had access to it but at least there is always home video (and a new DVD release thanks to the Warner Brothers Archives) as a way for people to rediscover this underappreciated film.
Also take a look at Ned Merrill's excellent post on this film over at his blog, Obscure One-Sheet and a fantastic post over at The Moviezzz Blog.