Dillon plays Doyle Kennedy, a criminal lifer in his twenties, who meets fellow-train jumper Wade Corey (Andrew McCarthy) to start the picture. Doyle's heading home to Kansas. Wade says he's on his way to his best friend's wedding in New York, but lost all of his money and stuff in a car fire in Utah. Doyle invites Wade to stop-over in Kansas for good barbecue and good times.
Drifting through the plains, Wade finds work as a ranch-hand, while falling for the rancher's bitchy, frou-frou daughter, Lori (Leslie Hope), who kind of likes him, but is too stuck up to say it. Wade does some honest work and becomes a hero after a local reporter named Nordquist (Alan Toy) recognizes Wade from the scene of the accident. Doyle shacks up with a floozy carnival manager and then a lonely hooker (played by a very cute Kyra Sedgwick in the way back days), all the while trying to track down Wade and the loot.
Doyle finally catches up with Wade and sweats out a compromise by torching the rancher's barn and tossing doubt on Nordquist's hero story. Wade caves and they pair off the money. Wade hitches another train out of town, with Lori set on marrying her lawyer-to-be priss of a boyfriend. Doyle's also making his way out, but gets roadblocked and taken out by the cops. The ending is stinky romantic balls when Lori catches up with Wade before he gets too far gone.
There's a ton of promise by director David Stevens and screenwriter Spencer Eastman, but it falls short on delivery. Not a total wreck, but the inconsistency in tone and character (and not to mention the horrendous music again) are only really saved by the performances and David Eggby's gorgeous cinematography. Kansas looks great. Saturated and simple. And McCarthy, Toy and Sedgwick command the screen, with Dillon following right behind. There was a missed opportunity to give us more Nordquist. Toy is the cream as the ubiquitous reporter on crutches, photographing Wade's journey like a celebrity stalker and then self-torturing his journalistic responsibility when Doyle basically calls him a sycophant, without really knowing the word to use.
We can't tell if Wade is telling the truth when he meets Doyle. He gives a smiley acceptance of a stranger's invite to a strange town even though he has to get to the wedding. This could have been a clever tact to get the audience thinking about and maybe doubting Wade's past and projections, ultimately chalked up to McCarthy's easy manner. Doyle harbors no surprise. His conscious was reared on the wrong side of the tracks, irrespective of a good upbringing. In one of the film's few great moments, Wade says, "I was baptized," to which Doyle responds, "So was I. It never took." Maybe Doyle is the rough nut and Wade is the affable liar. You can trust Doyle as far as he tells you to. You throw a cock-eyed stare at Wade because accidental car fires, forced train-hopping and stealing are incompatible. Maybe Wade's just bored. Maybe he's on the run. Maybe he wants to be bad at Doyle's expense.
We lose the Wade from the beginning. The shadowy kid with a far-fetched story, running after a moving train and making friends with a thief. Instead, we get a saccharine Wade. Vanilla-fused and getting drugstore intimate with a wealthy chick. Despite McCarthy's better performance, Dillon's Doyle becomes the more fascinating character by default. He doesn't change a lick from the get. His arc is sort of a straight line. But, we sense desperation and degradation. He mans a carnival ride and hurts a couple of cops because he can't do anything more in the meantime while waiting out the whereabouts of Wade and the money. His slim emotional needs are carried by a horny older woman and Sedgwick's terrifically turned whore, escorting Doyle to dream lands and popcorn paradises with immature whim and aloofness. Doyle's death is predictable and resoundingly appropriate. If only the filmmakers had the guts to do the same with Wade, but it's obvious that the movie likes Wade more. Doyle gets different treatment. No accompanying music or frolicking barn sex. Stone cold ambient sound and dingy trailers and motel rooms. And Dillon is up for it despite the awful accent. He's been acting a long time and was still gnawing his teeth in 1988 after The Outsiders (1983), Rumble Fish (1983), The Flamingo Kid (1984) and The Big Town (1987), putting it all together before age thirty in Drugstore Cowboy (1989). An Irish boy from New York with some chops.
Kansas is somewhat representative of the mainstream trend in the 1980s. Good idea, decent script and fine acting, but beautifully uneasy sparseness unnecessarily filled with vacuous, bubble gum feelings, and darkness cut short by the light, both musically and thematically. You generally need to dig in the decade's indie bin to find the good stuff - Blood Simple (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), Down by Law (1986) and Do the Right Thing (1989), for example.