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Skip Tracer

(AKA Deadly Business) 1977, Starring Mark Archeson, Sue Astley, Mike Gigg, John Lazary. Directed by Zale Dalen.

Skip Tracer is an all but forgotten Canadian film about a fallen bill collector fighting his way back to the top. Hands down, this is one of the best Canuxploitation films I have seen since. Directed by staunch independent filmmaker Zale Dalen and lensed in the back alleys of Vancouver, Skip Tracer is a gritty, low-budget, urban Canadian drama starring a cast of unknowns.

The "skip tracer" of the title is John, a well-dressed and sadistic bill collector who relishes the conflict and the power he gets with his job. John works for a disreputable loan sharking outfit, giving high interest loans to the downtrodden. Inevitably, it is also John's responsibility to physically chase clients down after they start missing payments. Once the company's "man of the year," John has since fallen down the totem pole and lost his own office in the process. Skip Tracer details his attempts to call in all his outstanding accounts so he can win "man of the year" again.

While he is flexing some extra muscle with his clients, a new trainee skip tracer named Brent has started tagging along with John to learn about the business. When John goes out to track down payments, we see what a heartless bad-ass he really is. His techniques include completely cleaning out a guy's apartment when he is away, and dropping a single business card on the floor. He chases another guy around a construction site until the deadbeat hides himself in a piece of pipe. John berates him while slamming a wrench on the pipe until the skip can stand no more.

Although John does start getting some of his accounts to pay up, he is having a serious problem collecting from one of his clients. It seems that frequent phone calls and visits seem to have little effect in opening Mr Pettigrew's wallet.

When John goes home one night, he is stabbed by a shadowy figure waiting outside his apartment. Although John really wants no help from Brent, he manages to save John's life by getting him to a hospital. John is convinced that Pettigrew is the culprit, despite the fact that there are many skips who would probably like to see John dead. To retaliate he steps up his efforts, even making phone calls from the hospital bed.

As John's harassment increases, Pettigrew's wife visits John at home one night to ask him to stop leaning so heavily on her husband. In an effort to convince him, she displays the bruises on her arm where her husband has been taking out his anger. But John isn't interested, and tells her that has heard every sob story in the book.

While all this is happening, John begins to question his choice of career. When a poor old gentleman who needs money to send his wife to a special hospital applies for a loan, John tries to convince him to go to the bank instead. He also constantly tells Brent to look for another a job, and refuses to help him work his way up the organization.

Finally, with one day left to finish collecting on his accounts, John's only outstanding loan is Pettigrew's. In a change of tactic, he has a grizzled old skip tracer named Leo call one night. When Leo comes back, he tells John that Pettigrew promised the money will be ready for him the next morning. When John arrives at the house at sunrise, there's an eerie calm over the house. He has no idea what stands in the way of his coveted "man of the year" award.

It's hard to believe that this is Dalen's first feature. While some Canadian features can drag a bit, Skip Tracer is expertly paced, never getting bogged down in talky relationship exploration. Instead, the film opts for a gritty, pulp atmosphere. In one scene John, Brent and Leo visit a stripbar where Leo hollers at the girl to get off stage because she is "too ugly." In some respects, the tone approaches 70s action films like Across 110th Street and Superfly, and like many of those films, Skip Tracer is also a tale of redemption. John's maniacal desire to regain the "man of the year" title is contrasted with the realization that he hates the job and what it has made him become. Skip Tracer explores the "built-in conflict" of this job several years before Emilio Estevez would learn that repo men spend their lives getting into trouble instead of getting out of it. Highly recommended.

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