Universal // 2007 // 84 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // May 16th, 2007
"Strangers think I'm trustworthy."
While we've been duly warned never to pick up strangers, we now find we must also be wary of entertaining those who appear familiar to us. That is, many genre fans are well acquainted with a 1986 thriller that has achieved cult status, an unnerving yarn about a good-natured college boy who makes the critical mistake of picking up a hitchhiker on a lonely road. Suddenly, the boy -- not to mention the viewing audience -- becomes overwrought with the dread that the outwardly charismatic passenger is wielding a switchblade knife and has plans to terrorize the young driver in an unending barrage of physical and psychological assaults. And then along comes a new version of this well-regarded nail-biter, and we're tempted to open our disc trays to welcome the familiar stranger.
Wait -- don't.
Jim Halsey (Zachary Knighton, The Mudge Boy) has arrived to pick up Grace (Sophia Bush, Stay Alive) from her college dorm room for a interstate road trip that leads to indulgent Spring Break festivities. Along the way, they pick up a mysterious man, John Ryder (Sean Bean, Flightplan), who is in need of a lift to a nearby motel. He seems pleasant and grateful enough, yet quickly reveals himself to be a sociopath when he brandishes a switchblade and threatens to gouge out Grace's eye. Somehow, Jim manages to push him from their speeding car, but soon discover this particular menace has chosen them to be the target of his sadistic game: murders for which the young couple are effectively framed for, and therefore pursued by the local state troopers. And just when it appears the police are ready to believe the distraught pair, Ryder reveals he's ready to finish off his tortured prey.
"You useless waste!"
When John Ryder spits out this line with venomous disdain, we have to wonder who he's verbally assailing. We are led to believe he's so wholly disgusted with the indecisive and ineffectual Grace and unleashes his rage in her direction, yet we wonder if he's aiming his disgust squarely at the filmmakers, who have hijacked his capable performance in order to drive this worthless retread. Music video director Dave Meyers, clearly puppeteered by über-producer Michael Bay, attempts a scene-for-scene cribbing of the 1986 original, but can't seem to find his way into the land of genuine suspense even with a proven map at his disposal.
Truth be told, the 1986 original film was far from being a "masterpiece," but it did present a wicked twist on the well-used and often abused slasher/stalker formula of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The film was remarkably sadistic and senseless in its violence, depicting a killer whose background and motivation are never revealed. He's practically omnipotent and omnipresent, as well, in the manner that he maintains advantage over his victim and is able to dispose of any potential assistance that might benefit his target. Rutger Hauer delivered a genuinely unsettling performance as the entrancing yet purely evil John Ryder, while C. Thomas Howell played solo as Jim Halsey. Their pairing made for an excellent dose of thick and unrelenting tension, the pursuer unyielding and the pursued unwary. Ultimately, it made for an engrossing excursion into the horror-thriller realm that, while not an A-list achievement, was nonetheless effective in its intent.
And, now, this minor classic has become the latest victim of the Hollywood remake abattoir.
From the outset, the film is an exercise in audience aggravation. The initial near-miss with John Ryder on the rain-soaked roadway could have been entirely avoided had Halsey not been driving at top speed despite the inclement weather and without feeling the need to keep his eyes on the pavement very much. When Halsey decides to give Ryder a lift, he fails to consult with Grace, who had vigorously protested earlier, yet for whom he shows little regard when he fails to assert himself with the psychotic pickup. Once the pursuit begins, it becomes clear these two young people have seemingly experienced conflict resolution only to the effect that it has been communicated through video game consoles and reality TV shows. The attempt to flee across the open New Mexico desert, unaware of how the plumes of dust they raise easily disclose their location. When cornered by Ryder in an abandoned car cemetery, they take refuge in a corrugated metal shack that's easily within sight and shooting distance. And when they think they've eluded Ryder at a roadside motel, they determine that Jim should go get help while Grace slumbers.
If audience members were cheering on Ryder, it just might be understandable.
This remake bears the stigma of other such "re-imaginings" aimed at young audiences: it treats young people like mindless fools. Admittedly, similar features from the 1980s were certain to include a moron or two in order to ratchet up the body count, but similarly clueless and inept protagonists were infrequent. Today, young people have to endure an on-screen peer group that struggles to muster the intellect of a fifth-grader completely bereft of common sense. It's a shame, really, because these lazy characterizations, while they make it easy to advance a plot, simultaneously derail any potential for the audience to identify with their embattled counterparts. To this end, you'll find Jim to be unusually inadequate and passive, while Grace is similarly incapable of escaping -- much less outright avoiding -- this unnecessary situation. "Sorry, we're not going that way" is all that needed to be said. Roll end credits.
Sean Bean, as previously noted, is trapped in this farce, one that wastes his imposing stature and piercing eyes. Visibly, he's a suitable aggressor and could have provided even more menace to John Ryder, but ultimately the ridiculous script rendered him as just a rampaging monster that could lay waste to an entire police squad and maintain access to any vehicles necessary in order to spring up to shock the brain-dead youngsters. A waste, indeed.
While I clearly discourage you from ever picking this remake up for a spin, you might be satisfied to know that Universal has shown it's not all thumbs when it comes to mastering a high-definition release. This HD DVD exclusive title (sporting a flipside SD alternative) technically outshines its inferior content. Another 1080p / VC-1 encoded transfer, the picture is crisp and vivid from start to finish. The detail level is razor sharp, revealing every bit of texture from clothing to skin to dusty landscape. The color is lush yet well balanced, striking realistic tones while imbuing emotive hues that might have benefited the mood had the script not sloppily slaughtered any chance at real suspense. The audio is also quite adept, the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround mix engaging all channels all the time from the very opening (poor bunny rabbit; never heard that car coming from over your right shoulder). Most enjoyable is the active low-end signal that seems to boom and roar persistently. And yes, the dialog is clear and clean throughout -- but frankly, who really wants to hear what these idjuts have to say?
As for extras, Universal has delivered another next-generation disc with the touted U-Control interactivity that allows you to view the film with picture-in-picture interview and on-set footage (and it's especially commendable that the disc's menu allows you to select the volume for the PiP content). The content is generous and practically non-stop; too bad it doesn't have something more worthwhile to discuss. As expected, there's the usual fluffy back-slapping featurette, Fuel Your Fear: The Making of 'The Hitcher', a piece that is completely self-congratulatory, where the cast and crew dare to profess theirs as the better rendering of this cinematic shocker. Another featurette, Road Kill -- The Ultimate Car Crash, bores us briefly with the usual behind-the-scenes look at the film's road stunts. Then, if you haven't yet experienced enough self-inflicted punishment, you're free to wade through over 20 minutes of unnecessary deleted scenes, then you're lied to about an alternate ending that was "too terrifying for theaters." It wasn't. The only bright spot among the extras is Dead End, a brief chronicle of a special effects mannequin designed by the KNB Effects team to accomplish the film's gore centerpiece (and likely the entire reason this remake was ever commissioned, simply to give audiences a look at what the original tastefully resisted).
While this court stands ready and willing to hear opposing arguments in favor of the defendant's case, no credible witnesses have stepped forward. We're not surprised.
In the end, this pointless remake only succeeded in wasting one talented actor's abilities and the time of the many unsuspecting viewers that it cajoled into buying an admission ticket. Even though this one runs just a scant 84 minutes, it seems so much longer when your riding along with it.
Guilty. And since the great state of New Mexico actively supports the death penalty, well...
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* U-Control: PiP Exclusive
* Featurette: Fuel Your Fear: The Making of 'The Hitcher'
* Featurette: Road Kill -- The Ultimate Car Crash
* Deleted Scenes
* Alternate Ending
* Official Site