Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Highwaymen

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

ROAD KILL : Robert Harmon’s HIGHWAYMEN

Psychopathic killer Fargo (Colm Feore) gets his kicks by zooming around the backroads of the USA and knocking down defenceless victims with his pepper-green 1972 Cadillac Eldorado. When he brutally slays the wife of young medic Rennie Cray (Jim Caviezel), the grief-stricken widower swears vengeance at any cost. Months later Cray gains retribution when he smashes into Fargo’s car, leaving the driver half-blind and wheelchair-bound – and Cray facing a prison spell. On his release, Cray discovers that Fargo’s injuries have only served to deepen his blood-lust – and when the “rebuilt” maniac goes after traumatised accident-survivor Molly (Rhona Mitra), Cray spots his chance for ultimate revenge…

Director Harmon had his one and only hit back in 1986 with The Hitcher, and Highwaymen shows why his career so quickly hit the skids. It’s a low-budget, low-octane B-movie which would normally find itself in the fast lane to home-video, but has fluked a brief big-screen spin in certain areas – including the UK and the southwestern US – thanks to Caviezel’s box-office success in (and as) Mel Gibson’s Jesus H Christ.

Most UK publicity materials, however, have downplayed Caviezel’s involvement: the only actor on the main poster is Mitra (British born and bred, but impeccably Yank-accented here) as Molly, under threat from Fargo’s Cadillac. And the strap-line heralds the movie as being “from the director of The Hitcher.” On closer inspection, this isn’t such a great come-on: Harmon’s next two credits were the Travolta flop Eyes of an Angel (1991), and Nowhere to Run (1993), which united star Jean-Claude Van Damme and writer Joe Eszterhas to unremarkable effect, while more recently he was responsible for ho-hum Wes Craven ‘presentation’ They (2002).

On the basis of subsequent ‘form’, it’s wiser to credit The Hitcher‘s merit to screenwriter Eric Red, who followed up with the fine Cohen and Tate (1989), which he directed himself, plus Kathryn Bigelow’s career-making Near Dark (1987) and Blue Steel (1990). Watching Highwaymen, some viewers may wonder why Harmon couldn’t have called upon the services of Red – the answer is tragic, and, given the subject-matter of The Hitcher and Highwaymen, horribly ironic.

Instead Harmon had to rely on scripwriting duo Craig Mitchell and Hans Bauer: Mitchell directed 1983’s What’s Up, Hideous Sun Demon which, as its irresistible title suggests, took the comedy-commentary technique pioneered by Woody Allen in What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966) and applied it to the sci-fi B-movie The Hideous Sun Demon (1959) – with contributions from an uncredited Jay Leno, no less. Bauer, meanwhile, hit the jackpot with surprise smash Anaconda (1997), then showed the extent of his range and ambition by following up with Komodo (1999), before running into a commercial brick wall with megaflop Titan AE (2000).

Highwaymen does see Harmon reunited with one key Hitcher player: composer Mark Isham, who is normally to be found on rather more deluxe Hollywood projects. Perhaps the pair were inspired to work together again after contributing interviews to documentary How Do These Movies Get Made? : The Hitcher which appeared as an extra on the film’s 2003 DVD release. And perhaps this is also how Hans Bauer got involved: the documentary was made by one “Jorg Bauer”.

In any case, Isham’s contributions are one of the very few aspects of interest in Highwaymen: his score is compellingly intense, and could well find an enduring after-life as a ‘temp track’ used by other composers writing music for movies. Watching the whole of Highwaymen‘s end-credit roll allows the viewer to enjoy Isham’s score without the distraction of the script’s lousy dialogue. And these credits also name (or do they?) the person responsible for the film’s eyecatching opening titles: “Jane Doe”, who also created the film’s nifty flashback sequences – but googling “Jane Doe” proves fruitless. The credits are strongly reminiscent of the work of the field’s acknowledged leader – could Kyle Cooper have asked for his name to be taken off Highwaymen, just as angry directors hide behind the now-infamous ‘Alan Smithee’ nom-d’ecran?

It’s possible – but this film isn’t really such a disaster, and not markedly worse than the inexplicably over-praised Dawn of the Dead remake, which went so rapidly downhill after Cooper’s outstanding titles. Highwaymen does counts as a frustratingly missed opportunity, however: the enticingly brief running-time promise a welcome throwback to an earlier era of no-nonsense B-movie, full of souped-up, pedal-to-the-metal thrills. This impression is bolstered by Joe Leydon’s breathless Variety review: “Lean, mean and stripped for speed, Highwaymen fires on all cylinders as an edgy and unnerving road-kill thriller… clammy terror… pared-to-essentials script… spins a gripping tale of blood and vengeance… 30 years ago, a well-crafted genre pic like [this] might have become an enduringly popular drive-in staple.”

In many ways, Leydon’s review is more entertaining and exciting than the film itself – Highwaymen would probably have been ‘hooted off’ at most US drive-ins, with no shortage of walk-outs, or perhaps “drive-aways”. Because, after an exciting early scene in which Molly and pal Alex (Andrea Roth) encounter Fargo in a claustrophobic road-tunnel, Harmon and company are far too content to fritter away their precious time tootling along in low gear. Idling in the slow lane, we’re given plenty of time to admire the scenery – as atmospherically captured by cinematographer Rene Ohashi (who worked on They, as did editor Chris Peppe).

But Ohashi’s slick approach pays drastically fewer dividends whenever we’re indoors – and there are far too many such talk-heavy scenes, starkly exposing the limitations of Bauer and Mitchell’s dialogue and characterisation. Renny and Molly are, of course, traumatised by their various tragedies – but the actors’ torpid numbness negates any real chemistry between the pair, or, come to that, between the couple and the viewer. There’s an especially underwhelming scene in which we’re solemnly informed about the number of Americans injured in car accidents – 350 per hour, totting up to millions per year – which points to Bauer and Mitchell’s “inspiration” for this project. But while the shocking number of auto-smashes does mean nearly all potential viewers will have been either injured themselves or known a friend or relative so afflicted, it seems somewhat tasteless and opportunistic to expect them to stump up their cash to see the phenomenon (and its dire consequences) played out on the big screen.

Not that this is an especially ‘big’ production: budgetary limitations are evident throughout – the faceless locales were filmed in rural Canada – and if anything the film could have done with several more slam-bang action pieces to keep the pace from dragging and, more importantly, to prevent us from dwelling on the mounting ludicrousness of the plot. As it is, the semi-mechanised Fargo’s machinations are simply too daft to be especially scary or suspenseful. (British audiences may struggle to suppress giggles at memories of BBC sitcom Allo Allo evoked when Renny exclaims : “Listen very carefully – I only have time to say this once.”)

Frankie Faison keeps popping up in the thankless role of malcontent accident-investigator cop Macklin – he’s often deployed for (ineffectual) comic relief, including a limp last line at Fargo’s expense. The villain’s injuries give Feore even less chance to shine, meanwhile, and his character – most of whose lines are transmitted by CB – often comes across as a less-threatening variation on the (wisely unseen) ‘Rusty Nail’ villain from John Dahl’s Joy Ride (2001), which really was a B-movie of the kind they supposedly don’t make any more.

11th July, 2004

by Neil Young