A methodically paced yet somewhat slack crime drama, The Onion Field boasts a number of impressive performances while faltering with a loose narrative. Based on the true tale of two police officers who are kidnapped at gunpoint and then taken to a remote area to be executed, The Onion Field is most notable for putting its leading star, James Woods, on Hollywood’s radar. The actor would deservedly earn a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal as a ruthless, murdering criminal but the film itself seems to have receded from collective memories as the decades wore on.
Released in 1979, director Harold Becker’s second feature film effort provided moviegoers with some new and interesting talents in Ted Danson and the late Franklyn Seales, but possibly overwhelmed viewers with the wearisome shifts in the story. The Onion Field starts out as crime drama and we are introduced to the principal quartet of characters who set the story in motion for its first third. James Woods and Franklyn Seales are Gregory and Youngblood, two petty criminals who sit and plot their robberies during the day and then execute their crimes successfully but rather clumsily at night. Woods’ Gregory is a sadistic lowlife who rules over his criminal charges with an iron fist. Youngblood (Seales) is a young black man just released from prison who finds himself caught up in Gregory’s schemes when he’s in need of money.
One night, the two felons are pulled over by plainclothes cops, the quietly unassuming Det. Campbell (Ted Danson) and his nervous, fresh-faced partner, Det. Hettinger (John Savage). Asked to step outside their vehicle, Gregory and Youngblood turn the tables and force the two officers into the car at gunpoint, driving out to an abandoned onion field where Gregory intends to do away with the two hostages. When Youngblood becomes a nervous, hysterical mess and trigger-shy, Gregory shoots Det. Campbell dead and proceeds to chase Det. Hettinger through the field. Hettinger manages to escape and Gregory and Youngblood dispose of Campbell’s body in a ditch.
A frustrating and demanding watch, The Onion Field uncomfortably shifts structure in the second third of its narrative, in which it becomes a courtroom drama. It allows generous room for the actors involved to further explore and showcase their range, but this narrative shift kills much of the tension. The story lags as Gregory endeavours to appeal the charges, representing himself in court and countering the prosecution’s claims. Meanwhile, we see the emergence of Det. Hettinger’s post-traumatic stress disorder; he’s completely fallen apart and has trouble adjusting to both his work and homelife, following Campbell’s death.
Yet another turn in narrative transforms the shambolic tale into a marriage drama; Hettinger (who is now working as a mall security officer) is struggling to keep his family together. In his developing disorder, Hettinger takes to petty theft, stealing merchandize from the stores he is assigned to protect. When he is finally caught (thereby losing his job), the situation deteriorates into the suicidal despair that has him putting a gun in his mouth.
Kino Lorber’s remaster is serviceable; the film certainly shows its age as there is quite an amount of grain throughout. Considering that this is now a film more than 35 years old, the print has been cleaned up rather nicely, if a little too soft at times. Sound and dialogue come through clearly. Included as extras are an interview with actor John Savage, an audio commentary with the director and a documentary on the film called “Ring of Truth” as well as the original trailer. If you care enough for this film, then you should be very pleased with the generous supplements. Everyone involved in the making of the film is generally enthused and passionate about their contribution and regardless of how successful in execution it was, the film earned its participants some deserved plaudits.
Admittedly, it’s hard to care for these characters, no matter how remarkable the actors’ performances. Despite the fact that much of what we see is based on true events and the probability that filmmaker Becker intended a faithful rendering of the story, the film lags after the first third. With the constant shift in moods, there is the even harder task of sustaining any impression that the first third of the film makes, which happens to be its most successfully drawn fraction. Where the film begins on a taut and almost sour note, Becker opts to wind down the story to a near maudlin and saccharine tale of redemption (every character by the film’s end is in a happier place, their emotional tumults peacefully resolved). It’s strangely commendable and off-putting at once; Becker genuinely cares about his characters, leading them loyally through their dramas of human dispute and salvation. But the lumbering stretch of narrative we are to endure is unwieldy and the film runs the risk of invalidating the otherwise outstanding performances.