Henry Moon (Jack Nicholson) is a horse rustler and bank robber who believes he can evade this posse who are hot on his heels, all he needs to do is reach the Mexican border. Get across the river that marks it and he is safe, so he pushes his horse onwards to escape, and they do indeed make it across the water whereupon he dismounts and loudly gloats to the posse that they have failed to capture him. Or so he thought, for his horse promptly faints, and the pursuers wade across the river and tie him up, not bothered if he's in Mexico or not. The penalty for his crimes is a death sentence by hanging, and come the day of Henry's execution things are looking bleak for him, until...
Not counting his work on The Terror for Roger Corman back in the mid-sixties, Goin' South was the second movie Jack Nicholson directed after his underrated college drama Drive, He Said, and like that it didn't exactly win much acclaim, nor make much of an impact at the box office. That in spite of him being one of the biggest stars of the decade, but it probably had more to do with his choice of vehicle. By 1978 even the boom in European Westerns had waned, leaving the genre with nowhere to go, and now that Blazing Saddles had effectively laughed the Hollywood version off the screen, you only got occasional muted blips like The Frisco Kid or Butch and Sundance: The Early Days to be ignored in cinemas.
Goin' South was one of those halfhearted tries at keeping the style in the movies, but it's indicative of the weakened potential of such stories, as it continues to be in comparison to the Western's heyday, that the script, which had been around for a good few years, was left with a paltry number of scraps to play with, the sort of affair where the ostensible bad guy was the hero, and he was tamed by the love of a good woman, or rather she was rendered more under the influence of his roguish charm. Nothing that hadn't been put across many times before, especially in the seventies, and even including a supposedly comic sequence where Henry tries to rape the object of his antagonistic desire.
You can't really excuse that, only that Nicholson didn't go into detail, but the casting offered some interest. This was the big break of Mary Steenburgen, who he met by chance and had her read for him, then decided she was perfect for the role of Julia Tate, the spinster who rescues Henry from the gallows when she agrees to marry him. We're not entirely certain why she would do so, but it turns out she needs someone to work in her small gold mine rather than be her romantic interest, though it's little surprise Julia does fall for his uncouth charms eventually even if it would have made a more original tale if she had resisted him right to the end. It's your basic odd couple love story then, and there just were not enough twists and turns to justify it.
Still, that cast was intriguing, Henry's main adversary played by Christopher Lloyd with a sinister mien, not bad at all but not really what garners laughs. As his sidekick was the Saturday Night Live breakout star, no, not Chevy Chase but John Belushi, adopting a Mexican accent and Zapata moustache and noticeably sidelined apparently thanks to his increasing drug use making him temperamental - there was no love lost between him and Nicholson, who was also harbouring his own addiction problems (that could explain his bunged up voice), which is a pity as you'd like to have thought of those two getting along. Veronica Cartwright caused trouble as Hermine, Henry's old flame who coaxes his gang into investigating his new wedded circumstances, Danny DeVito had hair as a member of that gang, though the director's good pal Jeff Morris got the best line ("Hungry? Shit, I could eat a frozen dawg!"). Nicholson's other good pal Luana Anders was in there too, but the fact was it was all rather tired and drained of energy, far from the necessary sprightliness. Music by Van Dyke Parks and Perry Botkin Jr.