Lionsgate // 1996 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // April 27th, 2007
Her life is no fairytale.
From Matthew Bright, writer of After Diff'rent Strokes: When the Laughter Stopped (a dramatization of the star-crossed fates of the cast of Diff'rent Strokes) comes Freeway. This ultra-violent, uncomfortably sexual modern interpretation of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale stars a young Reese Witherspoon and a pre-24 Kiefer Sutherland.
Vanessa Lutz (Witherspoon) is a barely literate high school student with family problems. Her mom, Ramona, (Amanda Plummer, Pulp Fiction) is a prostitute and her stepfather, Larry (Michael T. Weiss, The Pretender), is an abusive, unemployed drug addict. When the cops pick up Ramona for solicitation and Larry for possession, Vanessa, basket in tow, takes off for her grandmother's house, 400 or so miles up the California freeway.
Unfortunately, Vanessa's car breaks down at the beginning of her trip, and she is picked up by Bob Wolverton (Sutherland), the I-5 serial killer. Vanessa's unable to see through Bob's creepy yet sympathetic veneer, and soon finds herself trapped in his SUV, with a razorblade pressed against her throat. Showing her pluck, Vanessa manages to get to the gun she packed in her basket and ends up putting bullets into Bob's neck, back, and skull. Somehow Bob survives, and the police arrest Vanessa for attempted murder. Thus ensues a sensational trial in which Bob and his shrewish wife Mimi (Brooke Shields, Suddenly Susan) play the victim and it looks as if Vanessa might be going to jail for a long, long time.
I remember, not long after Clueless became a surprise hit in the summer of 1995, reading an interview with that film's star, Alicia Silverstone. She spoke of the long grind that led to superstardom, and the frustration of consistently losing out parts to some actress named Reese Witherspoon. At the time I didn't know who Reese Witherspoon was, but I looked her up and learned that she was the love interest in the disappointing S.F.W. and the star of that upcoming film that looked like a low-budget exploitation flick, Freeway. It seemed sad to me, that Silverstone should so thoroughly obliterate her former archrival. Turns out my sympathies were misplaced, as Witherspoon has ascended to Hollywood royalty and Silverstone, well, I recently saw her on stage here in Los Angeles, and she wasn't that bad.
However much I might have misdiagnosed the Witherspoon/Silverstone rivalry, I really wasn't that far off on Freeway. The film ended up not being quite as exploitative as one would assume from its suggestive cover art, but it's still pretty lame, and probably something Witherspoon doesn't look back on too fondly.
I don't mean to say that Witherspoon should be ashamed of her performance here; she shouldn't. She does the best she can, playing a loud and vulgar teenager who is occasionally forced to make incredibly stupid judgments in order to facilitate a ludicrous storyline. And the story is ludicrous. From the film's opening, which features a lingering shot of Vanessa snogging a classmate in the midst of an English class, to a rushed, truncated conclusion, there are no more than a handful of scenes that don't strain one's credulity.
That said, sometimes there is a thin line between sophomoric, shoddy storytelling and deviant satire. I'm well aware Freeway has a decent-size fan base who admires the film's gleeful disassociation from reality. I might admire that myself, if the film had more humor, or suspense, or heck, even more nudity. But too often the movie's edginess was underwhelming; the whole second half seems contrived to allow Vanessa to hurl profane (but still oddly tame) insults at authority figures, and find new ways to display Bob's reconstructed face. It's mildly amusing, but certainly not the stuff of great drama.
Still, the movie isn't completely without distinction. The idea of adapting fairy tales into vulgar modern stories is intriguing, and I was impressed with how well Bright was able to sync Freeway with Little Red Riding Hood. It almost made me want to check out Freeway 2: Confessions of a Trickbaby, Bright's updated version of the Hanzel and Gretel fairytale. But still, this distinction makes Freeway nothing much more than a gimmick; a gimmick starring two talented and acclaimed actors, but a gimmick nonetheless.
I can't really see the point of this re-release of Freeway, which has been available on DVD since 1997. Sure, the cover art is a little less garish, but I can't discern much difference between the sound and video qualities, and there are no additional extras. Perhaps Lionsgate is hoping they can trick some gullible customers into thinking this is a new film starring Reese Witherspoon and Keifer Sutherland that somehow flew under the radar? If so, I'm happy to have done my part by writing this review and dissuading anyone from making a regrettable blind buy.
Freeway originally received an NC-17 rating by the MPAA. It was trimmed to receive an R rating, and that is the version that has been released on DVD. It boggles the mind why Lionsgate wouldn't want to release the original cut of this movie. Beyond the fact that it's the director's original vision, it's also an NC-17 film starring Reese Witherspoon; do they think there's no audience for that?
Freeway is not nearly trashy enough to excite or titillate, and nowhere near dramatic enough to legitimately entertain. Witherspoon and Sutherland do the best they can with the material, but I'm guessing this isn't going to earn them any new fans.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director Commentary