In spite of having a four-year bachelor’s level education in film history and production, I must admit that I occasionally discover gaps in my cinematic knowledge. Sometimes it’s a classic that I just never had the occasion to see, and other times it’s a fairly recent film that somehow slipped my attention.
This month’s subject of “Rob’s Car Movie Review” is an example of the latter case, the modern-noir, suspense thriller Highwaymen (2004).
Highwaymen was a co-production of New Line Cinema, Millennium Films, and Cornice Entertainment and were also distributed throughout the United States and its territories by New Line Cinema.
The film was directed by Robert Harmon, who had previously directed another taut, dark, road movie, The Hitcher, starring Rutger Hauer.
Highwaymen‘s script was penned by a pair of writers, Craig Mitchell and Hans Bauer of Anaconda and Titan A.E. fame. Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ stars, alongside Rhona Mitra, Frankie Faison, and Colm Feore.
Caviezel plays Rennie, a man who five years prior watched a psychopathic thrill-killer named Fargo (Feore) intentionally run over his wife outside a remote desert hotel and then speed off.
Flashing forward to present day, we learn that Rennie is living a nomadic existence, driving aimlessly around the southwest in an effort to hunt Fargo down.
Meanwhile, a young college student named Molly Poole (Mitra) is involved in a traffic accident in a tunnel when the car she is in narrowly misses a wheelchair sitting in the middle of the road. Several people are killed in the melee, and when the dust settles, Molly is then stalked and run down by a mysterious driver in an old, beat up Cadillac.
Having coincidentally been in the area and monitoring the police radio on a scanner in his car, Rennie immediately arrives on the accident scene and realizes that the calamity was the work of Fargo.
A few days later, Rennie locates Molly at a car crash survivors group meeting and tells her he knows who did this to her. He tells her that the man won’t stop coming after her.
Molly is reticent to believe what Rennie is saying, but the next evening while riding in a friend’s car, Molly is again attacked by Fargo in the Cadillac and narrowly escapes death again thanks to Rennie who was following her.
Taking Molly back to a junkyard where he is temporarily staying, Rennie relates to her how immediately after the murder of his wife, he had jumped in his car and gave chase to Fargo.
When Fargo’s car spun out, Rennie had tried to give the killer the coup de grace by t-boning his car. The killer survived, albeit crippled and needing multiple prosthetic limbs from the collision.
Deciding that they must turn the tables on their foe, the two attempt to lure Fargo into a trap along with the help of a sympathetic crash scene investigator, Will Macklin (Faison). But their plans go awry when Molly is kidnapped by the psychopathic villain, leaving Rennie and the investigator to get her back and put an end to Fargo once and for all.
Being a big fan of The Hitcher, I went into this film hoping for quite a bit. I expected suspense, intensity, a good story with sharp cause and effect loops, and a modern noir mise-en-scène. Unfortunately, I was only partly satisfied with what the movie brought to bear.
The premise of the film is an interesting one, combining elements of former “Rob’s Car Movie Review” films Christine, Death Proof, and most notably, the seventies classic, The Car. However the execution of Highwaymen wasn’t as good as any of those films.
Instead, what we have is a mediocre attempt at capturing those films’ scope and feel without injecting anything terribly new into it. What’s more, the cause and effect loops are fairly poor, with characters constantly just happening to be at the right place at the right time for no other reason than to advance the narrative. As far as the look of the film is concerned, it is a competently shot, though never extraordinary, cinematographic exercise.
What really is bothersome though is the actors’ universally wooden performances. I expected more, especially from a guy of Jim Caviezel’s talent.
But the film isn’t a total disaster, and thankfully for both you and me, it is the cars and automotive action that save the movie.
Rennie’s car is the true four-wheeled star of the movie: a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda sleeper. Dilapidated on the outside, all dead paint and primer spots, it is conveyed through dialogue that the car is an ultra-rare 426 Hemi car, of which roughly 50 were made for Super Stock drag racing.
While the car used was actually a run-of-the-mill 340 Barracuda dressed up to look like a Hemi car, the vehicle department went to great pains to make the conversion look authentic.
It features a wood grained Hurst pistol grip shifters like those found in the later E-body ‘Cudas, fiberglass front fenders, hood, and a massive, correct hood scoop. More dialogue suggests that it has had its body acid-dipped and most of the extraneous weight taken out of it as the real Hemi cars did.
The other car-star of Highwaymen is the villian’s death-wagon – a literally huge, 1972 Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado Coupe. Beat to hell and wearing faded green paint like coagulated pea soup, the car is menacing and looks the part of a deranged killer’s ride. Inside, the car employs all sorts of alternative control systems, and that allow the prosthetic-burdened Fargo to drive it. It also sports what seems to be a Lenco multi-shifter transmission.
Seeing these two cars joust throughout the film like two war-worn knights is what saves the film from oblivion for me. With some better writing and acting, Highwaymen could have been a nice, taut thriller. Instead, it is a fairly forgettable film with some memorable automotive action. I, therefore, give the movie five-and-a-half out of ten pistons.