A slow week for movies feels just that little bit slower as you sit through its one new release. “The Hitcher” is yet another remake (of a 1986 terror flick that’s receded so far in memory that there are people who now look back on it as a classic) from producer Michael Bay’s unstoppable schlock factory. It’s a talk-back-to-the-screen movie in the grand tradition, which is kind of fun; but the verbal raspberries you’ll hear erupting from the audience are likely to be sharper than anything the actors in the film are being forced to utter, which is dispiriting. As, of course, is the whole the idea of such uncalled-for B-movie remakes.
Sean Bean — who needs either a new agent or a better-judgment transplant — plays John Ryder, a hulking, free-range psychopath who’s stalking a young couple named Grace (Sophia Bush) and Jim (Zachary Knighton) along the lonely highways of New Mexico, littering the landscape with dead bodies and setting them up to take the fall for his carnage. Ryder is an inexplicable gust of murderous fury, hacking his way through innocent vacationing families and a whole headquarters full of cops; he even kills a helicopter. But why? “You’re a smart kid,” he tells Jim, during one of their inter-bloodbath chats. “You can figure it out.” Jim can’t, of course, nor can we. This is annoying, because while the scenery-gobbling Rutger Hauer, who played Ryder in the original film, was naturally convincing as a what-the-hell whackjob, Sean Bean is too intelligent an actor for the part — he lets slip little flickers of pain and remorse that strongly suggest he has reasons for his behavior. When they’re never revealed, we feel like the picture is wasting our time. Which of course it is.
There are two memorable moments in the film. One involves a rabbit, right at the beginning; the other, a dog wetly licking the exposed innards of a bloody corpse. Apart from those two shots, though, provocative nastiness is in short supply. The movie is also conceptually subverted by the presence of a police lieutenant named Estridge, who’s played by Neal McDonough with the blue-eyed-loony splutter-and-glare that has become this actor’s trademark, and which here makes him seem like the most dangerous nutcase in the picture. We keep waiting for him to kill off those few characters that Ryder has left standing (which at least would have been an inventive plot wrinkle), and when he doesn’t, we wonder why he’s there at all. (And, not for the first time, why we are.)
The director, Dave Meyers, is a music-video graduate (Britney Spears, Missy Elliott), just like Michael Bay, and he’s wall-papered the soundtrack with generic pop-rock tunes. He also has an affinity for pointless visual references to other movies. There’s a nod to “Psycho” in a shower scene with bloody water swirling down a drain (one applauds Meyers’ restraint in not having Ryder sweep the curtain aside, wig on head and knife in hand). And there’s a shot in which a dragonfly gets splattered on a windshield and smeared across the glass by a wiper, which appears to be an homage, for some reason, to the opening sequence of “Men in Black.” Even more puzzling is a late-night motel scene in which Grace has the television on, and it is heavily demonstrated for us that the movie she’s watching is Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Why a low-budget production like this should be burdened with the expense of licensing that classic footage is baffling at first; but a little research provides the answer: “The Birds” is one of the next remakes on Michael Bay’s production schedule of shame (right after he gets finished murdering Kathryn Bigelow’s moody vampire classic, “Near Dark”). Where are the Ryders of this world when you really need them?
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