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Vanishing Point

Fox // R // February 24, 2009
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 2, 2009 | E-mail the Author
"The question is not when he's gonna stop but who is gonna stop him."

It's not
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tough to pick up on why Quentin Tarantino is so fascinated by Vanishing Point, one of the key touchstones behind his killer-in-a-car flick Death Proof. Despite director Richard C. Sarafian's claims to the contrary, Vanishing Point plays like Easy Rider with Detroit muscle under the hood. Kowalski (Barry Newman) isn't much for pot, though. His drug of choice is speed, gobbling fistfuls of pills as he decides to drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in the space of twelve hours and change. The movie keeps Kowalski and his motives for making this destructive trek shrouded in mystery. He drives with purpose but with no noticeable passion or anger; even when he recklessly barrels down the highway and knocks over passersby and highway patrolmen on motorcycles, Kowalski takes the time to stop and make sure they're okay. Kowalski at first catches the attention of Super Soul (Cleavon Little), a blind, deliriously over-the-top DJ in a sleepy desert town who makes it his mission to spread the gospel of the Last Great American Hero. Before long, throngs of supporters are standing behind Kowalski as he quietly shrugs off the establishment, but an army of highway patrolmen spanning four states are hellbent on keeping him from continuing to carve a path to San Francisco...

Vanishing Point veers away from virtually every last stale formula. There aren't any meandering subplots or supporting characters to distract. Kowalski hardly ever steps outside the Dodge Challenger, and because he's almost always in the car by himself -- there's no love interest or wisecrack-spewing sidekick riding shotgun -- he barely has any dialogue to deliver at all. I've seen very few movies where the lead is saddled with this little to say. Rather than plod through some extended setup, Vanishing Point opens in medias res with the highway patrol setting up a barricade to stop Kowalski dead in his tracks, and his backstory is revealed entirely through police reports and a few hazy flashbacks. The film takes its time revealing who Kowalski is and deliberately avoids answering most of the dangling questions surrounding him, and he's not pitted against any sort of stock villain. Vanishing Point prefers to keep Kowalski's motivations draped in shadow, but this isn't an assault or some act of rebellion. Savagely beaten down by the world around him, Kowalski's driving because that's all he has left, and there's no malice behind it at all. The movie closes on a note that shrugs off every last one of the usual expectations, and it's abstract enough to open itself up
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to unrecognizably different interpretations.

On one hand, I respect the fact that Vanishing Point bucks so many conventions. Much like Two Lane Blacktop -- released the same year, coincidentally -- I never felt as if I'd been watching a marginally different take on a formula I'd seen however many dozens of times before. At the same time, though, Vanishing Point seems to keep itself at arm's length. The ambiguity swirling around Kowalski and why, exactly, he's doing this is the only narrative hook the movie has. Kowalski becomes a folk hero over the course of an hour and a half, but I can't pretend to share that same connection to him or the plot as a whole. While there's certainly something infectious about Cleavon Little's manic, unrestrained turn as Super Soul, so much of his dialogue comes across as rambling, pretentious, and empty. Kowalski stopping to pick up a pair of pre-Prop 8 stereotypes who've just gotten hitched and an extended visit with faith healers in the desert seem like pointless derailments. The primary difference between the domestic and UK cuts on this disc -- a romp with Charlotte Rampling spewing streams of pot smoke and profundity -- does fill in some gaps in the storytelling but seems strangely disconnected from the rest of the movie at the same time. Then again, this is a flick that's teeming with plenty of "...wait, what?!" moments like that, like a smalltown disc jockey with ESP who can be heard across four states and Kowalski's complete lack of surprise that a naked girl piddling around on a motorcycle has a 10th grade collage paying homage to him handy.

I dunno. Vanishing Point is a movie that seems to be almost universally revered, but I'll admit to not being quite sure what to make of it. I never found myself shaking my head or staring longingly at my watch -- it's hard to be bored by a movie that sends a muscle car careening across the screen at breakneck speeds for the better part of two hours straight -- but I didn't feel all that drawn into the flick either. I get the sense that Vanishing Point has deluded itself into thinking it's a lot deeper and more profound than it really is, and while I respect the fact that it's willing to take its storytelling so far left of center, I just don't feel like there's anything for me to latch onto. Vanishing Point has legions of fans, and this review is one of a straggling few online that doesn't count as much of a rave. I'll acknowledge that I'm in the minority here. I'm glad I took the time to watch Vanishing Point, but I have to admit that I don't see myself stepping up to watch it again anytime soon. Rather than dive headfirst into the deep end of this cult classic, first timers might want to opt for a rental instead.

Shot on the cheap nearly forty years ago, Vanishing Point doesn't exactly dazzle in high definition. This Blu-ray disc looks to be a fairly faithful representation of the movie's gritty, rough-hewn photography, though. While I do get the impression that there's at least some processing or filtering at work here, much of the film grain is thankfully still retained. There's a reasonably strong sense of detail and texture when the camera's closed in tight, although that fades away almost entirely in the many panoramic shots. Overall, definition and detail tend to be lackluster, but it's about what I'd expect for a low-budget movie of this vintage. I did spot some ringing around edges, but this appears to date back to the original photography rather than stemming from awkward edge enhancement. The extras on Vanishing Point make it clear that this was a run-and-gun shoot with a skeleton crew, and considering how rushed, underlit, and underfunded the movie was, I can't really picture it looking much better than what this Blu-ray disc has to offer.

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Vanishing Point sports a 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, but viewers should stroll in with reasonable expectations; its age, meager budget, and limited dynamics leave it tough to distinguish from a lossy, low bitrate Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Even with the snarl of this Detroit muscle and a slew of violent wrecks, bass response is light. The surrounds are reserved mostly for reinforcing the music scattered throughout and the pans of cars careening across the screen. The mix really doesn't take all that many liberties with the original monaural audio -- which purists will be happy to hear is also available -- and the stereo and surround effects never come across as forced or gimmicky. It's also worth mentioning that the film's dialogue sounds dated but is rendered reasonably cleanly and clearly. Vanishing Point sounds exactly the way I expected it to, really. This lossless soundtrack doesn't belie the age of the film, and I doubt it's much of a sonic upgrade over the DVD release, but it's good enough.

Also included are Dolby Digital monaural tracks (224Kbps) in English, French, and Spanish. Subtitle streams are served up in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin, and Vanishing Point offers support for D-Box bass shaker rigs.

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  • Super Soul Me: Around 45 minutes of interviews with the talent who assembled Vanishing Point's soundtrack plays in a picture-in-picture window as the movie unspools. The discussion is fairly in-depth and features a fairly diverse selection of artists, tackling everything from the songwriting to the actual recording to the changing landscape for disc jockeys to Mountain piling "Mississippi Queen" onto both the A and B sides of that 45. Chris Cornell also gets a fair amount of screentime, commenting on the use of so much footage from the film in Audioslave's video for "Show Me How to Live". Strangely, all of this material is encoded on the disc in high definition, but there isn't a way to play it at its native resolution through any of the menus: only in a fairly small picture-in-picture window. That seems extraordinarily inefficient, but...whatever.

  • 0A-5599 (10 min.; HD): The first of two high-def retrospectives features a slew of muscle car enthusiasts raving about the sleek, aerodynamic body style of the 1970 Dodge Challenger as well as the devastatingly powerful 500 horses under the hood. They run through the distinctive choices of stock paint, the interior of the car, and even its pistol grip shifter, and they also comment on why they think the Challenger got the nod to star in Vanishing Point.

  • Built for Speed: A Look Back at Vanishing Point (18 min.; HD): A sprawling selection of talent from both sides of the camera reflect on the movie, including chatter about Carey Loftin's startling stunt driving, the happy accidents stumbled upon during the rough-and-tumble shoot, topless motorcycle riding, upending the Super Spic originally inspired by the Big Bopper, and plowing through several interpretations of the film's ending. This retrospective casts a reasonably wide net, and it stands out as one of the meatier extras on this disc.

  • Audio Commentary: Director Richard C. Sarafian chimes in with a commentary track, and his focus is more on the atmosphere of getting this project off the ground than the nuts and bolts of production. Among the many highlights are noting that he originally wanted to cast Gene Hackman as the lead, sending a police chopper after a hooker who swiped the shoot's last drivable Dodge Challenger, the studio meddling and indifference that slashed the schedule almost in half and dumped it without any real promotion, Vanishing Point originally intended to scream to a close uphill in San Francisco (heading the opposite direction of Bullitt's iconic chase), and why his California Highway Patrol is staffed exclusively by women. Don't expect much insight into any underlying messages, though; Sarafian mentions several times what the movie's not about but tends to skirt around what Vanishing Point is supposed to be saying, exactly. I really enjoyed this track, though, and it's worth setting aside a couple of hours to give a listen.

  • Interactive 1970 Dodge Challenger (HD): It's a gimmick, really, but this extra lets users choose from a few different paint jobs to slather across a CG Challenger, and it also rattles off a few technical specs and tears through some comments from gearheads in a picture-in-picture window. Most of this footage looks to be recycled from "0A-5599", though.

  • Vintage Promotional Material (4 min.): Rounding out the extras are two TV spots and a theatrical trailer. Two of the three clips are encoded in high definition but may just be upconverts; the source is in such rough shape that I couldn't tell at a glance.

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The Final Word
Vanishing Point is the least visceral of the four car chases flicks to bow this week from Fox and MGM, and its awkward mix of action and arthouse pretensions might leave it better suited as a rental for the uninitiated. I have to admit that this isn't a movie I see myself giving another spin anytime soon. For established fans of this cult classic, though, Vanishing Point is an easy recommendation on Blu-ray, boasting a technical polish that's at least passable as well as a handful of high-def retrospectives.
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