While flipping through a list of upcoming movies, one title grabbed my attention. Grindhouse, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, is an homage to those gritty 1970s double features with broads, bullets and lots and lots of mayhem. It is two films shot and edited in period style and detail, stitched together by fake coming attractions and advertisements. It’s high concept at its best, exploitation filmmakers embracing their roots.
Two other new films also embrace their exploitation roots without apology. Smokin’ Aces, a bullets-and-blood action film about hit men, and The Hitcher, a remake of the thriller about a laid-back college kid who picks up a dead-end killer. While both films exploit their respective genres, neither does it successfully.
In Smokin’ Aces, which takes its cue from Tarantino, violence meets kitsch in a tale of a casino lounge illusionist, Buddy Israel (Jeremy Piven), willing to rat out the mob, a buffet of hit men out to silence him, and two FBI agents trying to save his ass. With a million-dollar bounty on Israel’s head, the assorted characters spend most of the film climbing over or killing each other to reach the prize.
What sounds like an interesting idea goes up in a blaze of bullets as none of the characters exists beyond the film frame. They’re nothing more than thinly drawn caricatures of more interesting, larger-than-life characters. The hit men are broken up into cliques: whacked-out skinheads, ass-kicking feminists, a master of disguise, a merchant of pain, but those are the only things defining them. It’s impossible to root for any of the characters, so all that’s left is waiting for the inevitable.
Writer-director Joe Carnahan takes his time reaching that collision, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if we knew and liked the characters. We don’t, so after the groundwork is established, we’re just waiting for the payoff. The director of Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane knows how to create chaos, and the last half hour of Smokin’ Aces is truly chaotic.
Released in 1986, The Hitcher starred Rutger Hauer as every parent and motorist’s worst nightmare. Featuring C. Thomas Howell as the unfortunate victim of the killer’s torment, The Hitcher tapped into numerous fears. On the surface, the film was a cautionary tale of picking up strangers, but as the cat and mouse game plays out, we also learn lessons about sacrifice and loss of innocence.
Tight, taut and terrifying, Robert Harmon’s original film was the right film at the right time. The same cannot be said for the remake, which comes 21 years after the fact and proves once again that time can be both friend and enemy.
Director Dave Meyers and three writers (including original scribe Eric Red) follow the same road map, taking the occasional side trip to keep audiences on their toes. Anyone familiar with the original will see past the distractions to find a film that is all pretense with no suspense. Some of the names may have been changed to protect the original, but there’s only so much you can do with the premise before you start repeating yourself.
The unsuspecting drivers are now a couple of kids driving through New Mexico on spring break. This dynamic should provide the film with emotional ballast, but lacks the uneasy alliance reached in the first film between Howell and waitress Jennifer Jason Leigh. In this film, the couple come prepackaged. I liked it better when they were strangers reluctantly forced to rely on each other in order to stay alive.
As John Ryder, the hitcher who takes the kids for the ride of their life, Sean Bean is menacing, but seems to be going through the motions. Hauer was more enigmatic, a human light switch capable of turning himself on and off in the blink of an eye. Under the right circumstances, you might pick up Hauer. Bean makes Ryder the type of person best left standing in the glow of the taillights.
So when Jim Halsey (Zachary Knighton) offers Ryder a lift, it immediately ranks up there with worst idea ever. Jim’s girlfriend, Grace (Sophia Bush), agrees, and when Ryder goes from friendly to ferocious, killing innocent motor-ists and framing them, the couple find themselves on the run from both the police and a psycho.
The action is impressive, that’s expected, but the film never carves its own identity. It is a retread on its last mile, an unnecessary remake which fails to capture the psychological mindset of the original. This Hitcher is an exercise in endurance, not just for the on-screen victims, but for those looking for something different.