Saturday, May 5, 2007

Vanishing Point: The Ill-Conceived 1997 Remake

Sure enough, watching the wretched 1997 made-for-TV remake of Vanishing Point (starring Viggo Mortensen!) made me appreciate the original much more. It's just a series of ill-conceived changes that obliterate everything good or interesting about the movie.

For example, and this is really the basic problem, the new movie has people explaining that "a 1970 Hemi Challenger is not 'just' a car. It is the apotheosis of American muscle car technology." Yeah, I guess you could give your characters long speeches about how cool a car is. Or you could just make your entire movie a love note to the car, like the original Vanishing Point. Having your characters go around saying "mopar" is not the way of it.

Also, the whole movie, by its nature, is already an infomercial for Dodge. There's no reason for a bumper sticker (on a Dodge Charger) that says "My Wife Yes. My Dog Maybe. My Dodge?... NEVER!" If you're doing your job with the rest of the movie, people will want a Dodge without the explicit advertising. The Dukes of Hazzard made Chargers cool without even trying, so now your movie isn't as slick as Bo and Luke. Nice going.

The whole point of the first movie is that you have a guy who decides for no reason that he's not stopping for the police, for other motorists, or for anything. We get glimpses of his life, but nothing that really explains why he insists on another run at the beginning of the movie even though he needs pills to stay awake. The new version of the character has a backstory and reasons for his actions and even stops for the police the first time.

And yet, by getting more of a backstory, Viggo Mortensen comes off like a bigger jerk than Barry Newman (the guy in the first movie). The original Kowalski stopped when it looked like he might have injured someone; Viggo just drives off. And since we don't know what's going on in the original Kowalski's head, it's easier to see the whole things as some kind of existential meltdown. Since we know Viggo's motivations, it's easier to say that he's overreacting when he freaks out and starts getting chased by police. I think the police in the original movie probably went too far (although Kowalski did almost kill that guy in the sports car that went off the bridge), but Viggo's Kowalski does need to be gotten off the road. He's a menace! He has grenades! I realize they're just smoke grenades, but I don't think it's crazy for the police to object to some guy driving around with a suitcase full of grenades that he plans on throwing at them.

Anyway, in the new movie, Kowalski only has to go 1200 miles. If he'd just gone the speed limit, he'd have gotten there in an easy 24 hours and nobody would have minded. Whatta dope. I mean, in the final crash, the guy from Kowalski's garage is already there. And I bet he did it without getting the FBI's attention, either. He probably just caught that 3:30 flight Kowalski turned down at the beginning of the movie. This is the problem with giving Kowalski a teimtable and trying to make his actions make sense.

I mean, until the new-version cops start shooting at him and attacking Greyhounds full of innocent people. Then I think both sides are crazy.

And another great thing about the original movie is that Kowalski doesn't have a plan of any sort past "drive". Viggo goes around buying police scanners and night-vision goggles and extra gas cans. He's premeditating this, so from the start of the chase, it's "a guy doing everything he can to get around the police" instead of "a guy driving, whom the cops have started chasing". Original Recipe Kowalski just drove, and that singleness of purpose is what makes him fascinating. The 1997 version has so many flashbacks and scenes of the police that there aren't nearly enough super-wide-angle scenes of the car driving down endless highways. I mean, I got a little tired of them in the original movie, but when they're not there, you really don't get the feeling of the endless driving. It's a movie about driving! Show more driving!

Frankly, it felt a lot more like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry than Vanishing Point, although that might just be because of the dialogue about getting the police chopper in the air as soon as it was ready. Also because the guy driving the car was kind of a dope but had a police scanner.

One last comment on the new movie: instead of being set from "Friday" to "Sunday", which is nicely vague and adds to the existentialism of the setting, the new movie is set from "Good Friday" to "Easter Sunday", because when you're trying to make your movie sound meaningful, it always helps to throw in random religious references. I'm not sure it makes sense to line up Kowalski's death (unless he "bailed out" at 185 mph, which sounds almost as risky as just staying in the car when it blows up) with Easter, though.