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The Hitcher   C-

Rogue Pictures / Intrepid Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Dave Meyers
Writers: Jake Wade Wall, Eric Bernt
Cast: Sean Bean, Sophia Bush, Zachary Knighton, Neal McDonough.

Review by Rob Vaux

With the acknowledgement that January releases usually scrape the bottom of the barrel -- and with the clear statement going in that The Hitcher is not, in any sense of the word, good -- I confess a certain relief at its appearance. The awards stampede of December led to an avalanche of important movies, meaningful movies, movies with something to teach us, and movies you owe it to yourself to see. With those movies now filling theaters -- providing a wealth of brilliance to be sure, but also a lot of pretense and bombast -- it's nice to hear someone say, "Well, our movie has Sean Bean carving people into strudel!" One cannot deny the appeal of some cheap exploitation in the middle of such a season.

And first-time director David Meyers brings a few (very) humble joys to this remake of the 1986 cult classic. His protagonists for example -- a college couple traveling cross-country on spring break, who pick up a deranged lunatic in a moment of indiscretion and spend the rest of the film running for their lives -- are a step above most slasher-film protagonists. The characters will never be ensconced in the pantheon of immortality, but actors Sophia Bush and Zachary Knighton bring at least a modicum of plausibility to their relationship, transforming them from one-note meat-grinder fodder into something resembling real human beings. We like them and feel that it would be a shame if they died a horrible bloody death: nothing to sneeze at in a genre whose fans usually side with the killer.

The remainder of the film displays a handful of interesting touches at unexpectedly odd moments. Little speeches from supporting figures have a weirdly endearing quality -- a convenience store clerk who talks about trying to milk a donkey or a doomed policeman discussing a teddy bear he bought for his daughter -- and the violence, though gruesome, lacks the gratuitous nihilism that's so in vogue these days. The blood we see comes mostly after the fact, save for one truly horrendous bit that's limited to a brief, impressionistic instant. And of course, as the maniac du jour, there's Bean, who need only open the driver-side door, give everyone the skunk eye, and collect his check with knowledge of a job well done.

Yet for all that, The Hitcher remains a January horror flick, which by and large entails giant heaping bucketfuls of Stinky. The decent elements -- unlooked for and thus pleasantly surprising -- still number quite few, and the remainder of the film has nothing worthwhile to offer. Its predecessor featured an endearing grindhouse energy that the newer model proves utterly unable to duplicate. With a ubiquitous background in commercials and music videos, Meyers struggles with a feature-length format (despite a slim 78-minute running time), producing a flat, monotonous tone that drags the entire affair down. There's no roller-coaster ride here, no slow buildup of suspense or jolting high-octane release. Events occur according to a prescribed timetable, aping the incidents of the first film without any sense of pacing or delivery.

And it never escapes that predictability by offering anything new. The hapless targets now number two instead of one, and some lip service is paid towards explaining why someone would give a hitchhiker a lift in this day and age, but the rest feels badly recycled. Well-meaning driver Jim Halsey (Knighton) picks up wandering vagabond John Ryder (Bean) over the objections of his girlfriend Grace (Bush) after nearly running the man down in the road. It soon becomes apparent that Ryder is exactly the sort of guy that those public service announcements warn you about, and though the couple manages to eject him from the vehicle, he's not done with them by a long shot. Subsequent acts of butchery along the lonely desert highway seem to frame Jim and Grace as culprits, while Ryder himself remains tantalizingly out of reach despite their increasingly desperate efforts to stop him.

That standard-issue story arc is slowed even further by memories of the superior original (to say nothing of Spielberg's Duel, the Gone with the Wind of highway-killer movies). The script by Jake Wade Wall and Eric Bernt feels slipshod and improvised, and every decent moment is matched by dozens of others that just lie there like dead fish. A verbal confrontation between Ryder and a well-intentioned police lieutenant (Neal McDonough) remains stuck in neutral, and while Bush and Knighton have their characters' relationship in hand, it's subjected to some intrusive bits of deus ex machina that clunk awkwardly against their hard-fought battle to make us care. The rest is just a long slow freeway drive to nowhere, marked by non-events that should be a lot more frightening than they are, and expectations of better things that never seem to arrive.

Such lapses are to be expected at this time of year, of course. A quickie remake of a B-horror picture helmed by a rookie director rarely inspires confidence in the best of times, and The Hitcher proves depressingly willing to sink to those lowered expectations. That it's merely crummy instead of thunderously awful suggests better things from everyone involved, but they will need to wait for another project to blossom. Whatever pleasures can be found here are small, sparse, and take too much effort to uncover, leaving The Hitcher another modest little film with too much to be modest about.

Review published 01.19.2007.

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