When Jan-Michael Vincent died on February 10th, we lost a legend.
For obvious reasons, the life and career of Jan-Michael Vincent is often held up as a cautionary tale. Vincent went from being a rising star in the 70s to being nearly unemployable in the 90s. When you watch Vincent in one of his early film, like The Mechanic or Big Wednesday, you see an actor who had both the talent and the looks to be a major star. He was such a natural and deceptively low-key performer that it is not a surprise that he was twice cast as Robert Mitchum’s son. He could play everyone from a hippie to a cowboy to a surfer to an assassin. Unfortunately, once the 80s rolled around, Vincent became better known for his struggles with drugs and alcohol than for his talent. After a brief but profitable stint starring in Airwolf, Jan-Michael Vincent found himself appearing mostly in straight-to-video action films. By the mid-90s, he was a mainstay on late night Cinemax. Even though the films had gotten smaller and his famous good looks had been ravaged by years of hard living, Vincent was still capable of giving a good performance.
It is impossible to talk about the legend of Jan-Michael Vincent without talking about Red Line. In this direct-to-video car chase film, Vincent was cast as a gangster named Keller. When an auto mechanic named Jim (Chad “Son of Steve” McQueen) makes the mistake of taking one of Keller’s cars for a joyride, Keller blackmails Jim into stealing a corvette from a police impound lot. Red Line was typical of the type of films that Vincent was usually offered in the 90s, an action-filled crime film with a handful of recognizable faces.
It was also a film that Vincent nearly didn’t live to make. Two days before filming was to begin, Jan-Michael Vincent was nearly killed when he crashed his motorcycle. Vincent suffered severe facial lacerations and he would later tell Howard Stern that his eye was nearly popped out of his head as a result of the accident. Vincent was rushed to the hospital and put in intensive care.
However, Jan-Michael Vincent still had a movie to make. So, what did he do? Two days after his accident, he checked himself out of the hospital and, unexpectedly, showed up on set. With his face noticeable bruised and swollen and with the stitches and sutures still visible, Vincent played the role of Keller. If you watch carefully, you can even spot his hospital ID, still hanging around his wrist. The script was hastily rewritten to explain Vincent’s injuries and, though he could barely speak or walk, he still delivered his lines and filmed his scenes. And goddamn if Jan-Michael Vincent didn’t steal the entire movie. Even after years of hard-living (not to mention just two days after nearly dying), Jan-Michael Vincent still had it. Even though he had to whisper his lines and film most of his scenes sitting down, Vincent was still credibly threatening in the role of Keller. He even points out his own injuries, saying, “I’m sick of looking like Frankenstein!”
The rest of the cast was made up of an eclectic collection of familiar faces. Dom DeLuise played Chad McQueen’s boss. Michael Madsen and Corey Feldman (!) both played rival gangsters while Roxanna Zal played the young woman who becomes McQueen’s partner in crime. B-movie fans will want to keep an eye out for Julie Strain, Robert Z’Dar, and Chuck Zito. None of them make as much of an impression as Vincent, though.
Red Line was meant to be an homage to the type of car chase films that Steve McQueen made famous. Chad McQueen even gets to drive a replica of the car that his father drove in Bullitt. Some of the chase scenes are exciting but Chad doesn’t have his father’s screen presence and the film never overcomes its low-budget. Watching the movie is a lot like watching someone else play Grand Theft Auto. Red Line is a forgettable movie but it will always be remembered as an important chapter in the legend of Jan-Michael Vincent.