Fox // 1971 // 106 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // March 11th, 2009
It's the maximum trip...at maximum speed.
"The police numbers are gettin' closer, closer, closer to our soul hero in his soul mobile. Yeah, baby! They about to strike. They gonna get him, smash him, rape the last beautiful free soul on this planet." -- Super Soul
One Friday at 11:30 pm, car delivery driver Kowalski (Barry Newman, The Limey) sets out from Denver for San Francisco in a sleek and badass 1970 Dodge Challenger. He bets his Benzedrine dealer that he can make it to 'Frisco in 15 hours. Mayhem ensues as Kowalski races through Colorado, Utah, and Nevada with cops in hot pursuit. Along the way, he meets an old prospector (Dean Jagger, White Christmas), a friendly hippie (Tim Scott, Lonesome Dove) and his motorcycle-riding nudist girlfriend, and a beautiful, enigmatic hitchhiker (Charlotte Rampling, The Night Porter). As his adventures transform him into a folk hero of sorts, he makes a psychic connection with a blind radio disc jockey named Super Soul (Cleavon Little, Blazing Saddles), who roots for "the last American hero" to make it to his destination even though he knows in his heart that Kowalski's cross-country adventure must end tragically. As Kowalski hurtles toward his destiny, we're treated to glimpses of his past through flashback: the surfing death of a beautiful lover, his time in Vietnam, failed career as a cop, and near-death experiences as a professional motorcycle and car racer.
Cut from the same cloth as 1969's Easy Rider, director Richard Sarafian's Vanishing Point combined action, anti-authoritarian themes, trippiness for trippiness' sake, and popular music to become a road picture hit in 1971. It's heavy, man...and also a whole lot of fun, if you dig American muscle cars and naked chicks on motorcycles. The flick unapologetically steals Easy Rider's fatalistic declaration of the end of American individuality. There's no coherent rationale for Kowalski's decision to tear ass across the deserts of the American west, cops and his own life be damned, but it doesn't really matter. The former soldier/cop/pro racer is beaten down and smothered by The Man, man, by the labels that society lays on you. He's so fed up by it all that he's ready to hurtle into sweet oblivion with a wry smile on his face. Maybe those heavy sentiments seemed audaciously relevant in the early '70s. Today, they serve the simpler and more direct purpose of planting the movie firmly in the time in which it was made, producing a counter-cultural texture that blends in entertaining ways with the car chases, jumps, and crashes. Somehow, if Kowalski wasn't so damned serious, so incapable of smiling (except when the smile is a "screw you" to both fate and the American establishment), Vanishing Point wouldn't be nearly as fun as it is.
Despite Kowalski's anti-hero appeal, Cleavon Little steals the show. If Easy Rider's stand-out performance belongs to second banana Jack Nicholson as a football helmet-wearing lawyer on the lam, then Vanishing Point's belongs to second banana Little as the loud and animated blind DJ, Super Soul. The Podunk radio personality is everything that Kowalski is not: black, verbose, and so geared up that he can't bring himself to sit behind his microphone, preferring instead to dance before it, hands gesturing wildly. Little's performance is the glue that holds Vanishing Point together, delivering nearly all of the film's laughs, verbalizing its themes, and even evoking real pathos and sadness. Without Little, Vanishing Point would be a dour collection of car chases. With him, it's a sometimes somber, sometimes jubilant collection of car chases.
This Blu-ray edition of Vanishing Point offers up both the U.S. and U.K. versions of the film via seamless branching. The U.K. version runs seven minutes longer than the stateside version. All seven of those minutes comprise a scene in which Kowalski tokes a doobie and has an elliptical conversation with a strange and sexy hitchhiker played by Charlotte Rampling. The nighttime scene's mellow atmosphere provides a brief but welcome respite from the movie's action, and the dialogue is key in piecing together some of what's driving Kowalski to drive. Its inclusion makes the U.K. cut the preferred version of the movie.
Vanishing Point looks great in high definition. There is minor age-related density variation in some early shots, but the image is otherwise clean and stable. The DVD released back in 2004 looked excellent, but the Blu-ray offers better color reproduction, improved detail, and greater depth (the desertscapes of Utah and Nevada look absolutely gorgeous in high definition). It also perfectly reproduces the grain inherent in the source, which means this 1080p AVC transfer looks a heck of a lot more like celluloid than its standard definition counterpart.
Though a clean, fully restored expansion of the movie's original mono track, the DTS lossless master audio mix is unremarkable. Given the limited source, the mix can't put you in the middle of the action or let you feel the rumble of the Challenger's Hemi in your gut. It does, however, offer more bass presence, a slightly expanded ambient space, and a superior presentation of the movie's memorable music than the original analog mono track. A one-channel mono presentation of the original soundtrack, fully restored, is also available, as well as mono dubs in Spanish and French.
The 2004 DVD included a commentary track by director Richard Sarafian, a theatrical trailer, and a pair of vintage TV spots for the movie. All of those extras are included on the Blu-ray (the trailer and one of the TV spots have even been upgraded to 1080p), along with a few brand new exclusives. "Interactive 1970 Dodge Challenger" is a neat little feature that provides specifications and trivia about the movie's famed car, courtesy of a computer-generated model that can be viewed from four different angles. Two "pods" provide ultra-brief picture-in-picture blurbs about the car's instrument panel and its distinctive pistol-grip shifter; a color options menu allows you to paint the model Pink Panther, Sublime, Plum Crazy, or the white used in the film; and a tech specs menu has four text-based blurbs about the car's original factory color options, its speed, the cost of restoring one today, and its exhaust system. "Built for Speed: A Look Back at Vanishing Point" is an 18-minute making-of featurette. Better than that is "Super Soul Me," a 30-minute behind-the-scenes piece that can be viewed as a stand-alone featurette or via a picture-in-picture mode. "OA-5599" (named for Kowalski's license plate number) is a 10-minute featurette that examines the history of the Dodge Challenger. All of the video features are presented in full 1080p high definition. There are also a number of features exclusive to the U.S. cut. The first is a bizarre option called the "Virtual Dashboard" that slaps a Challenger instrument panel in front of the movie and gauges Kowalski's speed and fuel while you watch. I'm not sure what the point is, especially since the dash takes up so much of the screen that you can't actually see much of the movie. "Cars, Cops, and Culture" is a trivia track that is more focused on the styles and trends of the '70s than on the movie itself. There's also a multiple choice trivia game you can play while watching the feature.
Fans of Vanishing Point with high definition gear will want to dump their old DVDs and pick up this Blu-ray for its improved picture, slightly improved sound, and larger slate of extras. Newcomers to the movie will find that this release offers a closer approximation of Vanishing Point's beautifully unostentatious '70s cinematography than its standard definition counterpart.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* UK Version
* Trivia Track
* Interactive Features
* TV Spots