Dupe de Ville: Vanishing Point (1997)

The critics had their knives ready for this remake of a cult classic. But as Dave finds out, they never liked the original all that much anyway…

“Pointless!” screamed Walt Belcher of The Tampa Tribune, in the wake of a preview screening of VANISHING POINT (1997). “It should vanish right after it airs tonight on Fox. Shame on anyone who remakes a cult favourite and does it as badly as this.” [1]

A vicious assessment for sure – but then any remake of a celebrated work tends to garner a similar reaction, at least in the short term. Time is a valuable commodity though, and a quarter of a century on, Charles Robert Carner’s riff on Richard Sarafian’s classic is certainly deserving of reappraisal.

Fusing a heady blend of rebellion, drugs, sexual liberation, and rock n’ roll, the original Vanishing Point (1971) encapsulated the counterculture of the era. However, poor reviews and distributor Fox canning it theatrically after barely a fortnight ensured that its iconic status took a while to materialise. But grow its reputation did, first from the drive-ins (where it was frequently billed alongside John Hough’s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974)), and then, prophetically, from a well-viewed TV broadcast in 1976.

For Carner, he felt that time hadn’t been so kind to Sarafian’s era-defining classic:  

“The original had been one of my favorite films in high school,” remembers the writer/director. “We were all into muscle cars back then. I hadn’t seen it in twenty-five years when I noticed a VHS copy at my local video rental house. I rented it. Watched it. Thought it had dated badly and now played like yet another cheap, nihilistic Easy Rider (1969) rip-off, like so many others produced in that era. However, the core idea was still brilliant: a lone American hero on a road trip across the American West, facing the increasingly arbitrary and destructive power of the State. It’s just that in the intervening decades, the in-groups and out-groups had changed places.”

Beginning on Palm Sunday and set over seven days up until Easter, Jimmy Kowalski (Viggo Mortensen) finds himself twelve-thousand miles away from his pregnant wife, Raphinia (Christine Elise). It’s a difficult pregnancy owing to her having lupus, and mounting medical bills have meant that he has no choice but take a job delivering a 1970 Dodge Charger to a collector in Colorado. When the call comes in that she’s gone into labour, Kowalski’s attention immediately turns to getting back home, and he’ll stop at nothing to ensure that he’s by his wife’s side.

Replacing mysticism with a religious angle to Kowalski’s actions is undoubtedly the hardest pill to swallow. Similarly, Jason Priestley is no Cleavon Little in the role of the disc jockey, and nor is this pivotal figure blind now either. If we let those trunk-waving elephants in the room slide for a moment, then a ruthless state trooper played by Steve Railsback, and Keith David as an unhinged FBI agent are welcome additions to the ensemble.

David in particular is box office. “That’s our way in,” he says, desperately scheming to get involved in Kowalski’s case. “It’s domestic terrorism! He could be planning another Oklahoma State”. The mid-‘90s had the FBI under some scrutiny, and it’s here where Carner’s interpretation shines. Fresh from their reputation being sullied at both Waco and Ruby Ridge, the provocative political slant of this Vanishing Point has the Feds fighting to restore their credibility regardless of the cost or legitimacy.

Carner had some notable films as a screenwriter in the ‘80s. Let’s Get Harry (1986) was a serviceable men-on-a-mission movie, but it was bogged down with post-production issues that led to helmer Stuart Rosenberg taking an ‘Alan Smithee’ credit. Blind Fury (1989) was a smoother ride, but it suffered at the box office despite its subsequent legacy as a prime slice of Hauersploitation.

In Vanishing Point, Carner’s dexterity is impressive. Granted, the film is no Ronin (1998), but the car chases are nicely staged and, at times, truly thrilling, and veteran cinematographer Daryn Okada (Phantasm II (1988)) submits some lush photography that takes in Arizona and Monument Valley. That said, the best looking thing about Carner’s reimagining is Mortensen. Oozing the kind of intensity, charm, and believability that we’ve all come to expect from him, he brings a compelling degree of emotion to Kowalski. Indeed, whatever you think about the film’s existence, Mortensen makes it tough to hit eject. You’ll probably hate yourself, and there’ll be more tutting coming from your mouth than a budgerigar – but by the end credits you might have softened your opinion…

[1] ‘Vanishing Point’ Better Left Alone by Walt Belcher, The Tampa Tribune, 7th January 1997.

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