Tuesday, May 17, 2011

REVIEW: The Hitcher (1986)

Director: Robert Harmon
Starring: C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh

“Stop me.”
-John Ryder

Oh hell yeah. This is The Hitcher from the 80s and it’s pretty much awesomeness personified. How can you get cooler than this movie? This is basically an amalgamation of several great genre tropes – horror, Western, action – into a triumvirate of mindblowing coolness. True, it’s none of those genres exclusively, making it a sort of mutt of the movie world, but then, that’s part of the reason why I like it so much. It’s its own thing, and it hails from a time period when that kind of genre-blending made movies into a unique concoction that can only be described as ‘the 1980s.’ True, there was a lot of crap from that time too, but this isn’t one of them; oh boy, it isn’t. Let’s dive right in.

First off, just…the actors. This whole movie is basically just Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell duking it out. The Hitcher is not a film with a boatload of characters, and these guys pretty much carry the movie all by themselves, even if there are a few cops and Jennifer Jason Leigh along for the ride as well – it’s still Hauer and Howell in the driver’s seat all the way, and both actors give a powerhouse performance. Howell, who plays a young guy named Jim Halsey, is a bit of a typical 80s guy, with big hair and a cocky if earnest personality. He had the whole slightly-bad-boy thing going for him that so many 80s thriller and horror characters often had – he might be a bit of a daredevil, but he’s also nice and pretty much harmless in the long run. He does a good job just by virtue of how tough his character is. He’s also smart, which helps out in the film as he must constantly dodge the cops AND Hauer at the same time.

And Hauer, playing the devilish John Ryder, is just great, too. He plays the villain of the film as a mysterious and sadistic hitchhiker with a smile on his face, completely confident in whatever he’s doing. He does a number of completely impossible things and seems to have no goal but to screw with Howell, framing him for several things and just generally pushing him to the edge, the total brink of his sanity. Hauer doesn’t actually have many lines in this movie, but when he does speak, as in the chilling first scene where he threatens very calmly to dismember and kill Howell, he’s just terrifying. What a great performance.

Jennifer Jason Leigh also does a good job as Nash, the humble but tough waitress who Howell befriends on his madcap rush through the desert. She’s cool because she’s so atypical for a female character in these kinds of movies. Usually they’d be all over-sexed and demure and giggly, but Leigh plays the character here as very cool-headed and reserved. She isn’t afraid to fight, she doesn’t wear skimpy clothes and she’s willing to stand up for what she believes in. She just seems like the kind of chick you could be friends with and talk to as well as have a relationship with – if she wanted to, that is; this is not a girl you’ll be dominating any time soon. Oh, and she doesn’t scream in a manner that makes me want to go deaf. Until her tragic last scene at least…but I’m not spoiling anything.

The action is all top notch here. Tons of cool scenes like one where Ryder plows through a gas station in this big truck and sets everything on fire, causing it to explode, or the chase scene where the cops all think Jim and Nash are the real bad guys. This is a very fast paced and exciting film that will keep you on the edge of your seat all the way, and I love it for that. There is not a dull moment. The film ricochets flawlessly from careening action scenes to blood-chilling suspense and horror, and it all kind of muddles together into a coalescence of cool, cool stuff that you won't want to miss if you like either genre at all.

The theme of the film is pure, primal battle, almost animalistic in its feral nature. Jim and Ryder tear across the countryside in an epic, explosion-fueled chase that brings them both to their worst. Ryder is more of a force of nature than a man. Look at the scene where Jim wakes up in jail and finds his cell door open, along with every cop in the building brutally murdered. That is just chilling. No normal human being could do this so mechanically, so thoroughly destructively. It’s more like a tornado of violence swept through than like a man killed these guys one by one.

One of the other scenes that always gets to me is Nash’s death scene. Tied and gagged between two large trucks and threatened to be pulled apart, her life is hanging in the balance and all Howell and the cops can do is watch. By the red and blue lights of the cop cars, Howell and Hauer have one final scene together inside the truck Ryder has hijacked. Jim cannot stop him. It is tragic, affecting and bitter. This is the point where Jim really goes over the edge and is prepared to kill Ryder – you can see it on his face, and in every inch of his stiff and rigid body movements.

And again, how about that opening scene? I briefly mentioned it above, but it really does bear a more elaborate review. Jim, being the earnest 80s guy he is, lets Ryder into his car on the middle of a rainy road. They talk for a bit, but even before anything happens, you can sense something is wrong, as it just feels off. Then they pass a car and Ryder mentions, very casually, that he killed everyone in it, after they picked him up too. “And I’m going to do the same to you,” he says, still quiet and calm. He puts a knife to Jim’s eye. “Stop me,” he says – a challenge.

This pretty much sums up the theme of the movie in a nutshell. Hauer is a destructive and malicious force playing a weird sort of game with Jim all throughout the film. “Stop me” – a challenge that he knows is futile, as he can’t be stopped. Or can he? This whole movie is about Jim’s character getting pushed around more and more until he just can’t take it anymore and snaps at the end. I get the idea that Ryder, this entire time, was just looking for someone worthy to play his twisted ‘game.’ He killed the other people who picked him up off the road because they didn’t have it in them to fight back. Jim did.

Really this is just a classic. The action scenes are awesome, the suspense is racked up high and the whole thing is supremely enjoyable and powerful on every level. It’s an epic thrill ride the way only the 80s could do it. This is a dark, punchy film for people who love tension and grit in their movies, and for those who can’t get enough of that old 80s-style brilliance. One of the best you’ll get. Highly, highly recommended!