It’s staggering for me to fathom that of this date, I’ve been penning this column, uninterrupted, every month for close to eight years.
During the course of that time, I have evaluated some classics of the car movie genre, as well as some, shall we say, less than well-conceived and executed efforts.
As you can imagine, finding a continuous stream of films to review for such a lengthy period of time has become quite an undertaking in and of itself. Thankfully, in endeavoring to round up pertinent motion pictures, I have found a few failsafe methods.
Not surprisingly, many of the movies that have appeared in these pages are ones I have seen or been of aware of for some time. Four years of film school will tend to do that for you.
Others have come to me by the way of reader or co-worker suggestions, such as the Australian campfest, Running on Empty.
Sometimes I stumble upon a movie fortuitously, while researching something completely different.
Every once in a while though, I like to scan the libraries of various streaming services, to see if there is something topical that has recently been released or somehow otherwise eluded my net.
This month’s subject, in fact, has come to me by way of the latter method. So without further delay, let’s have a look at a flick I found on Amazon Prime just a few weeks back: 2016’s Detour!
Although set in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Detour was primarily shot in South Africa, and was likewise produced by foreign interests. British companies Head Gear Films, Bankside Films, Dan Films, Newscope films, along with Dubai-based Kreo Films, handled development and filming, while distribution in the United States was performed by American interest, Magnet Releasing.
The movie was written and directed by Christopher Smith, who previously helmed the 2009 sci-fi mystery thriller Triangle, a favorite of mine. Starring is Tye Sheridan, of several installments in the X-Men universe, Emory Cohen, Bel Powley, and Stephen Moyer.
Detour tells the story of Harper James (Sheridan), an introverted, young law school student whose wealthy mother is in a persistent coma from a car accident she was in with Harper’s stepfather, Vincent (Moyer).
Finding evidence that suggests Vincent crashed the car on purpose in an effort to inherit his wife’s estate, Harper enlists the help of Johnny Ray (Cohen), a pimp and drug dealer who he randomly meets at a bar, to murder his stepfather while he is on a trip to Las Vegas.
Along with one of Johnny’s prostitutes, Cherry (Powley), the trio drive to Vegas, but along the way, events unfold that complicate what was a simple plan. Furthermore, in a series of flashbacks, we begin to learn that all is not what it seems in terms of Harper and Johnny’s motivations and past actions.
Detour borrows unabashedly from past films of its ilk, most notably 1993’s Kalifornia, True Romance, and 1994’s Love and a .45. As the saying goes, good artists borrow while great artists steal, and indeed Detour displays quite a few past genre elements.
The screenplay is tight, with no fat present to slow down digestion, resulting in a film that moves from start to finish. What’s more, the script’s dialog and fractured, non-linear narrative are both well-realized. I especially liked the split screen device employed early in the movie that helps show Harper’s internal deliberations as to what consequences his decisions might reap.
The movie also looks splendid, with stylish cinematography, amazing desert scenery, gritty locations, and some very deft picture editing.
There are a couple of flaws though, one glaring, and another somewhat less so.
The lesser offence deals with some of the acting. While Sheridan and Powley put in generally sound performances, Cohen’s as Johnny Ray is somewhat generic. I admit, it’s not entirely his fault, as sometimes an actor only has so much to work with on the page. It’s just that I wish he had found a quirk or trademark he could have used to differentiate his character from the hundreds of other villains of this type we have seen over the decades. As it is, there is little that makes his effort stand out.
Some minor performances in the film also leave much to be desired, such as the waitress at the diner. Phew, not good.
The bigger problem with the movie has to do with the people that populate the world of the story: they are all unlikeable, indefensible degenerates.
Now, many thousands of films in silver screen history have focused on anti-heroes, but the key to making an audience root for a villain-hero is that they must have a redeemable quality or an inherent charisma that keeps viewers on their side. Think Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry films, Al Pacino in Scarface, or Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs.
Frustratingly, in Detour, everyone is an utter dirtbag, with no charm, no sense of humor, and no noble cause. In fact, I don’t think there is a single humorous line uttered by a character in the entire film. The only protagonist that is in the least bit sympathetic is Cherry, but only because she is so utterly damaged and lost.
Because of all this, many of the positives that the movie possesses are squandered, as no one can enjoy a narrative film for its cinematography or editing alone.
Some of us gearheads will always forgive a flick for its failings if it features some rockin’ cars though. In this respect, Detour has a big ace up its sleeve in the form of the main vehicle that the trio travels to Vegas in: a seriously nice 1973 Ford Mustang Mach 1.
Draped in 4N Medium Aqua blue with the black side, hood, and rear deck Mach 1 stripes, this is one sexy ‘Stang. What’s more, on the outside, it appears to be refreshingly bone stock save for a set of aftermarket, six-spoke wheels. It’s not often that a movie car isn’t bastardized or wearing bits and pieces from other model years, or even other types of cars.
Since we never get a look under the hood, there’s no way to determine what lump lurks there, but the choices for ’73 were limited to the base F-Code 302 cubic-inch Windsor V8, and the H-Code two-barrel and Q-Code four-barrel versions of the 351 Cleveland. These engines sadly produced only 140, 177 and 266 horsepower respectively, thanks to the tightened EPA and insurance regulations of the day.
The car appears not to be equipped with the popular Ram Air Package which made the dual hood snorkels fully functional, as evidenced by the lack of hood callouts and chrome twist hood locks that came in the option group. If I had to guess, I’d say Detour’s Mustang likely packed the Windsor based on sound.
All appears OEM with the Blue Corinthian vinyl interior as well. The car is clearly equipped with the Decor Interior Group, which afforded the Mach 1 the knitted seat inlays, upgraded instrumentation, and faux woodgrain appliques we see on the center stack and door panels.
Judging by the lack of shifting performed by Johnny Ray, it’s safe to say the Mach 1 was equipped with the SelectShift Cruise-O-Matic three-speed slushbox, though we never get a definitive shot of the floor console that would confirm this.
Although there is little high-speed action in the movie and no car chases to speak of, there are plenty of beauty shots of the car cruising past desert panoramas that make the movie look like a vintage Ford ad at times.
In closing, watching Detour is ultimately a frustrating experience. While it’s very watchable, has a beautiful mise-en-scene, a decent plot twist, and, of course, that Mach 1 in it, it fails to elicit any emotions whatsoever.
One watches it detachedly with the sense that if more attention was paid to character development, and a dollop of dark humor was added to the mix during the writing process, it could have been very good indeed, enabling it to join the pantheon of terrific films of this genre that it so clearly borrows from.
As it stands, though, it just doesn’t possess enough, and I can only give Detour six out of ten pistons.
See y’all next time.