It's 1968 and Teddy (Marjoe Gortner) and his girlfriend Cheryl (Candy Clark) are out in the Mexican countryside, awaiting a drugs deal that Teddy has arranged. Cheryl bathes in a nearby river as her boyfriend contemplates the world, but his view of things is not quite like anyone else's, as he may well have been psychologically damaged by his experiences as an American soldier in the Vietnam War. If anything, his ordeal may have made him dangerous as he manages to persuade the Mexicans bringing the cocaine to leave without payment - but with a gun, Teddy can be very convincing...
Coming across like a lost Sam Shepard play, though it was actually based on one by Mark Medoff, When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? was produced by one of the cult faves of the nineteen-seventies, Marjoe Gortner, who must have decided it was the ideal vehicle for his brand of wide-eyed character playing. Indeed, it was probably the last really meaty role he ever had, as the eighties dawned and Gortner found himself more in demand on series television, which funnily enough was where he had started his acting career back in the Kojak pilot - some consider his acting since then never got any better.
Not that this was an insult, as if you wanted to fill a crazy man role in your movie, this ex-child preacher was the ideal candidate, as if all those years of selling Jesus to the masses had somehow unhinged him and enabled him to tap into whatever it was that made the wilder personalities tick. Of course, this meant that the good guys he played were never half as convincing as the bad guys, for curiously for a man who had spent his life making his congregations believe what he was telling them, when he appeared in fiction there was something untrustworthy about him. Gortner quickly realised where his strengths lie, which explains why he chose to back this as a plum role for his good self.
Trouble is, there's a lot of waiting around for the good stuff as the various characters have to be established and gathered in one place so the fireworks can begin to fly. Patently the filmmakers wanted to open up their story for the movie world, but you do feel knocking about twenty-five minutes off the start and allowing us to divine the characters from how they react in the upcoming crisis would have been a better idea. Nevertheless, we do get to see the people who will be assembled in the smalltown diner for the second half of the plot, and they include two of the staff there, the prickly Red (Peter Firth sporting his best Southern accent) and waitress Angel (Stephanie Faracy), and the Etheridges, a middle aged couple heading for a violin recital (Lee Grant and Hal Linden).
Teddy and Cheryl re-enter the States in their Stars and Stripes-painted camper van, but not before he takes great pride in fooling the border guards by declaring his batch of cocaine: they don't find it, but they do subject him to a particularly invasive cavity search, something Teddy is weirdly proud of in spite of the physical discomfort he suffers. Then we reach the main course of the drama, as events take a turn into thriller territory and Teddy, having been frustrated by his van breaking down, ends up at the diner where he starts being overfriendly to those present, then, as we can easily predict after seeing him previously unsettling a Mexican waitress, he goes nuts. There follows sequence after sequence of Teddy humiliating and terrorising the other characters, with Gortner being quite remarkable in his portrayal of vindictive psychopathology, and largely being the best reason to keep watching to see how far he will go. The rest leans towards the conventional, both in themes and plot, but you don't forget who the real star is. Music by Jack Nitzsche.