Cisco Pike is a singer-songwriter and onetime band leader who had at least one hit song ("Breakdown") and a few successful concerts around 1966 before declining into petty drug dealership and jail time. Out of prison for now, but still in some legal jeopardy, he's determined to go straight and return to the music business, encouraged by his aspiring yogi girlfriend Sue (Karen Black). Since creative success wouldn't make much of a movie, Cisco finds himself bedeviled by a corrupt narc, Leo Holland (Hackman), who's nabbed 100 kilos of pot from a drug dealer and wants to make money from it. We'll learn that he's about to be dumped from the force due to a medical condition one year short of eligibility for a pension. The $10,000 he expects to make from the pot will be his nest egg, but Cisco will have to sell it for him, over a three-day weekend, or else Holland will make sure the musician ends up back in jail.
Norton's episodic script has a cumulative atmospheric effect, immersing you in the hazy border zone between the world Cisco wants to reclaim and the one to which he must return. Their close proximity, the effective borderlessness of the scene, is part of his problem. How he responds to the challenge brings us back to the question of the correspondence between Cisco Pike and Kris Kristofferson. The real man was not the first choice for the role, from what I've read, but his presence and his song contributions tempt us to ask how good a musician Cisco Pike is supposed to be. If a different actor played the role, we could more easily assume that Pike's talent is actually pretty limited and that his early success may have been all he could have expected. Either way, of course, Cisco Pike is a tragedy of thwarted potential, but if Pike is supposed to have written the Kristofferson songs, and is stuck where he is, then it's arguably a tragedy of a different order. As an actor, Kristofferson further obscures matters. I've never really cared for him but others clearly respond to his perceived authenticity or his gravelly-voiced masculinity. He was obviously a talented songwriter, but could he play one on film? What would one look and sound like, anyway? Obviously there's no set type, but Kristofferson playing Pike still leaves me wondering whether the actor was effectively portraying a relatively untalented artist or ineffectively portraying a superior talent.
The Kristofferson enigma doesn't necessarily determine whether Cisco Pike is good or not. As a Seventies buff, I was impressed by the locations and the ambiance, and the lead is supported by a strong cast of period stalwarts and iconic performers. Hackman doesn't really earn his top billing despite striving to make his character eccentric; nevertheless this is from a period when his presence is always welcome. Overall, I think any Seventies enthusiast will find items of interest in this folk-rock noir. If you think that decade was a golden age of American cinema, it can't hurt to give this representative film a try.
With no trailer available, here's Kristofferson's original performance of "The Pilgrim, Chapter 33" from his 1971 album The Silver Tongued Devil and I, as uploaded to YouTube by woudshoorn.
Fans of Seventies violence won't be disappointed either; Cisco Pike climaxes with a gunfight between a man (center) and a helicopter.