Rob’s Car Movie Review: Vanishing Point (1997)

Vanishing Point (1997) poster.

If you’ve been a fan of this column since the beginning, you’ll probably recall that the very first iteration of Rob’s Car Movie Review featured the iconic automotive film Vanishing Point (1971). This was not by chance, as I am a certified Mopar nut, and it is by far my favorite car movie. It’s difficult for me to believe, but that review was a year and a half ago, so I felt it would be appropriate to commemorate this trip and a half around the sun by choosing to have a look at the remake, a film I have never seen. So without further ado, I give you Vanishing Point (1997)!

Vanishing Point was produced as a made-for-TV movie by 20th Century Fox and Westgate Productions for air on the Fox Television Network. Directed and co-written by seasoned television writer-dirctor, Charles Robert Carner, the movie stars Viggo Mortensen, Christine Elise, Steve Railsback, John Doe, Keith David and Jason Priestley.

Jimmy Kowalski (Viggo Mortensen) behind the wheel of the iconic, white Hemi Challenger.

Jimmy Kowalski (Mortensen), a veteran of Operation Desert Storm and former stock car driver, now works as an auto deliveryman. While his wife (Elise) is days away from giving birth in Idaho, Kowalski takes a job delivering a car to New Mexico to help pay for her mounting medical bills. Arriving in New Mexico, he takes up another job delivering a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 426 Hemi to Salt Lake City, Utah.

Radio DJ, The Voice (Jason Priestley) urges Kowalski on.

En Route, Kowalski learns that wife’s pregnancy has made a turn for the worse, and he heads for Idaho in a mad dash to make it to his wife’s side. Illegally passing a slow moving vehicle at high speed, Kowalski is pulled over by police, and takes off once he is told that he will have to see the local judge. An interstate high speed pursuit ensues, in which a determined Utah State policeman, Sergeant Preston (Railsback) and an FBI agent shadow his every move. Urging Kowalski on is The Voice (Priestley), a political talk-radio DJ, who attempts to undo the government’s vilification of the man he deems the “Last American Hero.” As Kowalski gets closer to Idaho, the noose gets tighter and tighter.

Kowalski is nabbed for an illegal pass, and is told to “tell it to the judge!”

This movie is a perfect illustration of why remakes are usually a bad idea. The original Vanishing Point is a masterpiece of understated, existential, early 1970s filmmaking, and features strong endorsements of spiritual freedom and drugs, as well as anti-establishment views. The Vanishing Point we are concerned with here does away with all of that, and instead replaces the original anti-hero Kowalski with a milquetoast, white–washed version.

Whereas the original Kowalski had no goals and no raison d’être for what he does, the new Kowalski is a misunderstood man who simply wants to get back to his pregnant wife. In the process of giving Kowalski a reason to drive fast, and a more wholesome nature devoid of rebellion and methamphetamine tablets, the filmmakers have essentially stripped the story and protagonist of what made them great, and reduced the whole affair to that of a simple car chase. Not an improvement in my book.

Kowalski pilots the Challenger away from a gas explosion.

Whereas the dialog and emoting in the original film were spartan and minimalist, in the remake we are assaulted with anti-government exposition, ranging from how we are overtaxed to how stopping Kowalski will somehow erase the memory of the (then fairly recent) Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents. It’s all too much to cram into a film of this type and plays as extraneous white noise. While Viggo does a workman-like job, most of the other actors mail their performances in, especially in the case of an outrageously over-the-top Jason Priestley.

Furthermore, the action sequences and car chases in this film are no match for those of the original; there are many sequences where the cars’ speed does not match from shot to shot, and others in which road damage and grime seem to disappear and then reappear later in apparent continuity errors.

Kowalski’s ride to New Mexico – a 1971 Plymouth Roadrunner 440.

Which brings us to the one facet where this Vanishing Point surpasses with the original – the cars. While it goes without saying that the white Challenger is the starring vehicle of both films (in the original the car was a 440 Magnum, FYI) it’s the automotive co-stars which give this film the edge over its predecessor. While the 1971 film briefly had a Jaguar XK-E in it, this film features a flawless Lemon Twist ’71 Plymouth 440 Roadrunner that Kowalski delivers to New Mexico; as well as Sgt. Preston’s mighty black ’68 Dodge Hemi Charger, which he pursues Kowalski in, because “it takes a Mopar to catch a Mopar.” All in all, a serious collection of Pentastar powerhouses.

Sergent Preston pursues Kowalski in his 1968 Hemi Charger.

I truly wish Hollywood would stop making superfluous remakes such as this, and if they absolutely must, make a concerted effort to bring something new to the table. Sadly, this version of Vanishing Point does less to improve on the original than it does to taint the original’s greatness. I give the film four and a half out of ten pistons.

About The Author: Rob Finkelman is a freelance writer for Street Muscle Magazine. He attended and graduated from New York University’s film school in 1992, and subsequently worked in the movie business for twenty years as a documentarian and screenwriter. Combining his two great passions in life – films and cars – and writing about them is a dream job for him. He will be bringing us a Car Movie Review each month, and he’s open to suggestions so list yours below.

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Born and raised in Manhattan, Rob studied film production at New York University's elite Tisch School of the Arts film school. Upon graduating in 1992, he relocated to Los Angeles and established a career in documentary production and screenwriting. In 2015, Rob decided to change tack and combine his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and StreetLegalTV. He is an avid automotive and racing enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and musclecars.
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