Each year millions of illegal Mexican immigrants attempt to sneak into the United States. Jeb Maynard (Charles Bronson) is a border patrol agent who becomes involved in a murder investigation when a human trafficker called Hotchkiss (Ed Harris) shotguns a snooping agent (Wilford Brimley) along with an innocent Mexican boy caught in the crossfire. Aided by his new, young partner Jimmy Fantes (Bruno Kirby), Jeb investigates and uncovers a well-organized, million dollar operation specialised in smuggling illegal immigrants.
Not to be confused with the 1950 Fred MacMurray thriller or the 2002 Gina Gershon film and not likely the inspiration behind a certain Madonna song (unless Madge is a closet Bronson fan), Borderline was among a spate of border patrol thrillers released in the early Eighties. Other notable examples include Tony Richardson’s The Border (1982) starring Jack Nicholson and Border Cop (1980) with Telly Savalas. The sudden influx of illegal immigrants around this time roused a xenophobia amidst the Reagan administration that lingers on the American political landscape to this day. Opting for a low-key, semi-documentary style, director Jerrold Freedman - a solid TV hand since the early Seventies whose only notable big screen credits include the atypically downbeat Raquel Welch vehicle Kansas City Bomber (1972) and the interesting racial drama Native Son (1986) - and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto depict unsettling scenes of immigrants being herded by helicopters and blithely referred to as “wet backs” by world-weary, but not insensitive border guards. “Sleep tight, America. Your tax dollars are hard at work”, remarks one patrolman, sarcastically.
Neither right wing nor especially liberal, the film nevertheless takes a sympathetic look at immigrants and explicitly condemns those seeking to profit from their plight. Hotchkiss is a crazed Vietnam veteran, as cynical about the American dream as the immigrants are desperate to achieve it. He and his superior, Carl Richards (Bert Remsen) both work for business tycoon Henry Lydell (Michael Lerner), a classic Eighties entrepreneur. Lydell saw an open market and filled it. He dreams of the day cheap migrant labour will be listed on the commodities exchange as a legitimate business. For him, it’s all about the profit margins and to hell with the human cost.
This is a rare Bronson movie where our stone-faced hero relies on his keen deductive skills rather than brute force, and the emphasis is on unravelling a complex murder mystery instead of meting out vigilante justice. Bronson remains his usual laconic, hard-bitten self but also exhibits some rarely showcased sensitivity when dealing with bereaved mother Elena Morales (Karmin Murcelo). The film gives us a telling glimpse of Jeb’s lonely life, living in a near-empty apartment on a diet of TV dinners and beer. It bears the usual cop film clichés: the veteran killed with two months left till retirement, the callow but idealistic youth partnered with the cynical but experienced older guy; but proves strong on disturbing peripheral details like the Mexican maid hidden beside the engine in a wealthy old woman’s car till she is scorched by steam. The script packs a few neat plot twists: the villains throw the border patrol off the scent by staging a fake drugs haul and Jeb goes undercover on the other side of the border, essentially reliving the immigrant experience first hand. However, the film never suggests Jeb’s opinions have been significantly altered by these events, leaving it more an intriguing thriller set amidst the backdrop of illegal immigration instead of a rigorous examination of a complex social issue.