(director/writer: Paul Schrader; cinematographer: Michael Chapman; editor: Tom Rolf; music: Jack Nitzsche; cast: George C. Scott (Jake VanDorn), Peter Boyle (Andy Mast), Season Hubley (Niki), Dick Sargent (Wes DeJong), Leonard Gaines (Ramada), David Nichols (Kurt), Leslie Ackerman (Felice), Gary Rand Graham (Tod), Larry Block (Detective Burrows), Marc Alaimo (Ratan), Ilah Davis (Kristen VanDorn); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Buzz Feitshans; Columbia Tristar; 1979)

Hardcore is a softcore porn film that needed to be hardcore to have street cred as a believable investigative film about the porn industry.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Paul Schrader’s (“Blue Collar”/”American Gigolo”/”Affliction”) uneven but morally challenging drama ventures into exploitation voyeuristic turf that eventually lands nowhere with a ridiculously unbelievable, unrewarding and dishonest finish. Hardcore is a softcore porn film that needed to be hardcore to have street cred as a believable investigative film about the porn industry. It starts off realistically depicting smug, uptight and contented middle-class Americans interacting amongst themselves in a closed society, but it never lives up to its expectations of chasing after America’s culture clash between family values and society’s blind acceptance of porn. When it leaves the heartland and operates between a seedy Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, it never captures the rhythms of the underworld scene and loses its connection with reality to become risible, tacky and unconvincing. It’s Schrader and star George C. Scott at their most diverting and schizophrenic.

Single parent Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott) is a stern devout Calvinist straight-arrow suburban Grand Rapids, Michigan, prosperous manufacturer. Jake spends the Christmas holiday with his family, his sister’s family and his teenage daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis), and seems satisfied with his conventional life and traditional beliefs. Jake approves his well-behaved daughter’s church-sponsored outing to Los Angeles, only to soon discover she vanished while on the trip. He flies to Los Angeles and since the indifferent police seem stymied in their investigation, he hires wise guy sleazeball private detective Andy Mast (Peter Boyle) to find his daughter. Andy shows up some months later in Grand Rapids to show his client a porn flick with his daughter. The distraught dad writhes in agony and between sobs utters “Oh my God, that’s my daughter!”

Jake treks to Los Angeles and finds he can’t trust the oddball Andy, so he uses the private detective’s files to hunt himself for his daughter and poses as a porn film producer casting a new flick. Dad forms a sentimental alliance with heart-of-gold whore, a surrogate daughter, Niki (Season Hubley), and goes looking for his runaway daughter in the slimy porn underworld circuit meeting hustlers, whores, peep show operators, porn actors and other unsavory types. Scott is supposedly the typical white middle-class American square who is now forced to see things in his country he never knew about and starts acting all angry and shocked, as the conservative must also now look at himself in a different light in a country he no longer feels comfortable in.

The film’s reality driven story goes south when based in Los Angeles’s, San Diego’s  and San Francisco’s world of porn and both the good performance by Scott and set-up storyline become damaged goods. Nevertheless the flawed film weighs in with a few good questions about fundamentalist beliefs such as predestination, faith, and sin and the disconnect over parental relationships with their self-hating children. There was a good family moral drama waiting to emerge that got buried in banality and cheap TV-like sensationalism that never hit home, in a well-crafted film that was nevertheless gripping even if it lost its way in trying to find its way. It never sticks to the ribs like Taxi Driver (1976), a hard-hitting film that was also penned by Schrader.

REVIEWED ON 11/23/2009 GRADE: B-