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New Line // R // August 24, 2004
List Price: $19.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 6, 2004 | E-mail the Author
It's a timeless story -- boy meets girl, girl buys oranges, '72 Cadillac El Dorado runs over girl. Watching his wife turned into highway paste mentally unhinged Rennie Cray (Jim Caviezel; y'know, Jesus), who's spent the past few years doggedly pursuing her murderer across the country. His prey is Fargo (Colm Feore), a wheelchair-bound assortment of artificial limbs and psychoses that's still hunting down random women and plowing into them in his green El Dorado. Fargo's tagged Molly (Rhona Mitra) as his latest victim. Still reeling from watching her parents' grisly demise in a car wreck years ago, Molly barely escaped from Fargo's clutches, and she and Rennie form a tenuous alliance to search for Fargo before he comes back for round two. Because the formula's not complete without a cop, enter traffic investigator Will Macklin (Frankie Faison), who's trying to find the culprit behind the hit-'n-run with Molly and her pal Alex. The trail leads straight to Ronnie, his decked-out '68 Barracuda, and his vehicular criminal record.

The plot summarized above exists only to have some sort of loose, connective thread holding the vehicular mayhem together. It's pretty thin and doesn't stray for a moment from the well-trodden formula -- the vengeful, scruffy hero doggedly pursuing the monster who robbed him of his one true, the beautiful woman caught in the crossfire, and the outcast cop who doesn't know who to trust and eventually forms an uneasy partnership with our hero. That's about it. The backstory is delivered in lengthy stretches of heavy-handed exposition, boiling down to "kid unhinged from nasty stuff he saw growing up" (see: Christmas Evil, My Bloody Valentine, Silent Night, Deadly Night, or any of a hundred other movies I could rattle off) and a thirst for revenge against the man who crippled him. A single childhood trauma not being nearly enough for a 75 minute movie, it's also awkwardly revealed that Molly's suffered one of her own. Rennie is cut from the same "my wife was taken from me five years ago!" obsessive cloth that drove The Vanishing, an entire season of Angel, and...okay, I'm tired of making lists. It's a stretch to refer to these flimsy, one-dimensional creations as 'characters'. They're plot devices, not fleshed-out humans. Frankie Faison's traffic investigator is the only one in the movie with any personality, but his character feels shoehorned in and is mostly a waste of celluloid. Colm Feore is an incrementally creepier presence when he's only seen in fleeting, quick-cutting glimpses or hiding behind dingy windows. He's not intended to be a daunting physical presence, but Feore just doesn't exude the sort of sinister villainy that he needs to bring to the table. I'm a card-carrying fan of '80s slashers, and when I complain about poor characterization, something is terribly, terribly wrong. Still, it's kind of hard to fault the actors given what little they have to work with.

The writing tries to beat the viewer over the head with its complete lack of subtlety. One of Molly's early scenes has her brushing off a guy who's doting over her. She explains that Alex is picking her up, and the stunningly brilliant reveal...? Alex is a girl!!! The close-up of an obviously female driver should've been enough, but Molly has to be pepper every line of dialogue in their conversation with the name "Alex" on the off-chance a viewer with a double-digit IQ might've been too busy drooling all over themselves to get the gag. There are numerous plot contrivances and leaps in logic, the most grating to me being that Molly's character would subject herself to being used as bait for a mass murderer when there's no real reason for her to be there. Couldn't Rennie have just pretended she's riding shotgun and then exact his revenge when he catches up to Fargo? I mean, Fargo has to expressly ask Rennie over the CB if she's there. A lot of incomprehensibly dumb stuff like this happens. When Rennie's wife is about to be run down, he sees a car soaring down the highway and runs to rescue her. In the space of, oh, I don't know, four seconds, he manages to dart from his upper-level motel room and dash most of the way to the highway before the collision. She never hears him? The guy at the fruit stand doesn't see or say anything? Too bad the former Mrs. Cray isn't as resilient as Molly. Fargo rams into her car, sending it spiraling into the air and crumpling on the asphalt below. Then he drags the remains for a couple of miles, and Molly leaps from the sparking, fiery chunk of shattered steel to Rennie's speeding Barracuda. Sum total of the damage? A small nick on her forehead. There's suspension of disbelief, and then there's "...what?". As if Highwaymen hadn't exhausted enough clichés up to that point, the climax is set at the same motel where the movie opens, keeping the circle of mediocrity revolving.

The action sequences are where the emphasis has clearly been placed. Although there's no shortage of high-speed chases and totalled cars, all of which seem technically well-executed, they don't really amount to much in the way of tension or excitement. There are a few particularly incredible crashes, but the bulk of them are as straightforward and bland as the lead characters. The fact that the movie revolves around such flat, uninteresting characters probably dulls a lot of the potential intensity. Despite the number of hit and runs, there isn't anything particularly gruesome, just microsecond glimpses of a rag doll bouncing off the front end of a car. The opening sequence seems to have been Xeroxed straight out of The Changeling, and Highwaymen also seems to crib generously from Duel, Max Max, Jeepers Creepers, Joy Ride...hell, even director Robert Harmon's own infinitely superior The Hitcher. I was completely won over the first time I saw the theatrical trailer for Highwaymen, which looked like a return to form for Harmon. It's been nearly twenty years since he helmed The Hitcher, and nearly everything that made that movie an instant classic is wholly absent here. Highwaymen's beefier budget and glossier polish can't mask its anemic screenplay, and it's pretty obvious from a casual viewing why New Line continually delayed the movie and eventually dumped it in a little over a hundred theaters. Not recommended as anything more than a rental.

Video: Two versions of Highwaymen are piled onto this DVD. The first preserves the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in anamorphic widescreen. The movie appears to have been filmed with anamorphic lenses, and the alternate full-frame version provided on this disc is accordingly severely cropped. The widescreen presentation looks phenomenal, in keeping with New Line's usual track record. It's crisp and incredibly detailed, and the image holds up flawlessly even in the numerous dimly-lit sequences. I could take the anal retentive DVD reviewer approach and force myself to rattle off some blemishes -- a few tiny flecks pop up on the source material, and there also seemed to be very slight ringing around some edges -- but those barely make a remotely discernable dent in a first-rate visual presentation.

Audio: Highwaymen offers six-channel soundtracks in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS. Since so much of the movie has cars careening around on-screen, that offers a lot of opportunities for sounds to pan across channel to channel. The numerous collisions, rumbling engines, and the thunderous bass of Mark Isham's score keep the lower frequencies rattling. The surrounds stay fairly active throughout, whether it's the sound of screeching tires or just wind blowing against stalks of corn. The clarity of the DTS track is impressive, and in some of these collisions, I felt as if I could hear every bead of glass distinctly and individually bounce against the blacktop. The film's dialogue generally comes through well, although some of the readings recorded inside the cars sounded slightly off to me, like Rennie's sibilant exposition to Macklin. That sort of exceedingly minor nitpicking aside, it's a solid six-channel mix. The DVD's other audio options include a stereo surround track, subtitles in English and Spanish, and closed captions.

Supplements: The only extra related to Highwaymen is the movie's theatrical trailer (2:06). I would've expected some deleted scenes or maybe even an alternate cut of the movie since it seems hard to believe a director would intentionally deliver such a short movie to a major studio, but the trailer is the extent of it. New Line's also tacked on trailers for The Butterfly Effect, the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Frequency. All four trailers are presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and are accompanied by Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (384Kbps). The DVD includes a set of widescreen animated menus, and the movie's been divided into twenty chapters.

Conclusion: I'm a huge fan of Robert Harmon's The Hitcher, and the director's résumé coupled with an excellent trailer set my expectations soaring. Highwaymen feels and plays like a mid-'90s USA Original Movie with better cinematography and a larger budget. I'd suggest sticking with a rental, or better yet, picking up one of New Line's other DVDs that include the theatrical trailer. Pretty much everything worthwhile about Highwaymen is condensed into those couple of minutes.
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