J (George Segal) was a full time hairdresser, but now he's a full time junkie, roaming the streets of New York City looking for his next fix. With his friend Billy Dynamite (Jay Fletcher) he's trying a new scheme as he pretends that he's been sent to collect a safe, and manages to fool the cashier into letting them take it, but the cashier's boss soon realises what's going on and chases after them just as the cops arrive, meaning J and Billy leave the safe behind as they flee. J is reduced to trying the handles of parked cars to find one which is open, and when he does, he's attempting to start the vehicle with a ring of skeleton keys when its owner Parm (Karen Black) arrives...
Well, there's an ironic title for a start. Written by director Ivan Passer and David Scott Milton and named after the tattoo J has on his arm, Born to Win was a prime example of the realism that had become fashionable in the cinema of the early seventies, where actors and directors could get their hands dirty in the name of being as convincing as possible, portraying characters in various stages of suffering. And what a lot of suffering J has to endure, most of it brought down on his own head as the addiction clouds his brain and only lets him see as far as his next fix, which means a lot of petty crime is on the cards.
Being a hippy child of the sixties just as the times change to the bleaker seventies, Parm is very accomodating towards J, giving him the car keys and letting him drive her back to her apartment, where they spend the night. This hospitality doesn't stop J from going through her stuff looking for items to steal and sell, nevertheless. Parm is an interesting character, obviously excited by J's criminality and the perverse glamour of his addiction, and looking for a bit of stimulation through her association with him, but we never learn anything much about her beyond her deepening relationship with J, who has mixed feelings about her.
The film is pretty grim for the most part, apparently shot in a palette that includes every shade of grey they could find, but there are flashes of humour. Although not a likeable man, J's predicament is nonetheless involving probably due to Segal's skill as an actor bringing out his essential charisma to mix with his near-constant failure (and brave stunts like running along the street in nothing but a fluffy pink dressing gown help). That said, Segal doesn't pile on the charm, and it's blatant that he will never escape his doomed life - you don't need to see the ending to know that. But scenes which feature him trapped in a tumble dryer by the cops, or flashing a woman on the opposite balcony to get her attention and hope she will call the police are pretty funny.
J gets into real trouble when he is caught between his dealer, the sinister Vivian (Hector Elizondo) and the ever-threatening undercover cops (including a young and energetic Robert De Niro) who want him to assist them with their enquiries, i.e. to set up Vivian. This being a drugs film, there is the regulation cold turkey sequence, this time on a beach with the sea before him as grey as the city streets he has temporarily left behind, but it doesn't last long. Soon, despite Parm's help, J is back looking for more heroin. The plot may ramble, and Paula Prentiss as J's ex wife, also a junkie, may not give us much insight into his previous life (has he always been this much of a loser?), but Born to Win is a well crafted slice of life, slice of lowlife in fact, without offering any startling revelations. Excellent, very much of the era, music by William S. Fisher.