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Highwaymen (R) (2004)

New Line Cinema


Director: Robert Harmon

Producers: Carroll Kemp, Michael Marcus, Brad Jenkel, Avi Lerner

Written by: Craig Mitchell, Hans Bauer

Cast: Jim Caviezel, Rhona Mitra, Frankie Faison, Colm Feore


The film spectrum, according to this reviewer, extends between two contrasting poles: pure significance and pure entertainment. Examples of the former, such as Citizen Kane or Requiem For A Dream, are either inarguably valuable to the history of the medium or portray an unsavory aspect of society so bluntly that they are deemed too sterile or too difficult to view repeatedly. Abbott And Costello Meet The Invisible Man or Hell Comes To Frogtown forego conventional logic or filmic integrity in the most unobtrusive and pleasant of manners, yet offer nothing in terms of longstanding relevance or meaning. Some films, like Dr. Strangelove or Seven, dot the spectrum’s midpoint with dexterous grace, while others, such as Northfork or House Of The Dead, fail to either enlighten or amuse.

Highwaymen is such a failure. (Insert analogical car crash joke here.)

One random (but fateful) day, Rennie Cray (Caviezel) watches in abject terror as his wife (who must be a good person, because she’s pretty) is purposefully obliterated by a hit-and-run motorist named Fargo (Feore)—and within her first 30 seconds of screen time, too. Five tough years later, Cray is a scowling, Plymouth Barracuda-cruising vigilante with naught but revenge fueling his drive. Meanwhile, Molly (Mitra) (who must be a good person because she’s pretty and a member of her local choir) is chosen to be the dread motorist’s next arbitrary victim—and only one stoic, stubbly vigilante can get her out of this bind. To complicate matters, it’s dramatically revealed that, immediately following Cray’s wife’s liquidation, he pursued her killer and disfigured the violator in another thematic car accident. Naturally, Cray does jail-time while Fargo is rebuilt as a prosthetic-wieldin’, wheelchair-needin’ serial super-killer whose ride is not only tricked-out for maximum vehicular chaos, but also handicapped-accessible. Along for the journey is the obligatory, misunderstanding lawman (Faison) who can’t seem to get any respect, and who eventually teams up with Cray to end Fargo’s reign of four-wheeled horror.

Implanting the desire to know whether they succeed or not is one of the numerous, crucial elements the filmmakers neglect to infuse into Highwaymen’s confused chassis. Harmon (director of The Hitcher, which, apparently, lends him credibility in the automotive-thriller genre) stages his action across oblique, nameless cityscapes and arid stretches of desert highway filmed in grim, muted hues, and calls upon his actors to attempt channeling rational levels of emotion into their skidmark-thin characters. Such attempts at gritty realism conflict with the pulp-magazine texture of the plot, and create a nagging glare more distracting than windshield-magnified sunlight. My standards might be disproportionately lofty, but when a director allows scenes in which cars are flipped over—backwards—by a trailing car doing seventy at most, and lines of dialogue such as “Tires may not know how to spell, but the marks they leave are a language just the same” to escape the lips of supposedly grounded characters, my suspension of disbelief has been irretrievably whiplashed. Less forgivable, though, as Highwaymen intends to merge into a serial-killer/suspense/action hybrid, is the film’s treatment of the sinister, here represented by Fargo, the least-threatening onscreen presence since Vernon Wells donned a chain-mail vest in Commando. The jutting metallic rods that hold Fargo’s shattered body together ensure that, at his peak of intimidation, he resembles a puffin-fish, seated.

Likewise, Highwaymen’s acting is accordant with its comprehensively lacking nature. Caviezel grunts his dialogue with the off-putting arrogance of a man who just knows how to power-slide, never allowing us any reason to sympathize with, let alone support, his vendetta. When not communicating verbally, he seems on the verge of catatonia; one can only pray that his depiction of Jesus Christ is a bit more chipper. Mitra, a poor-man’s Sandra Bullock, is entrusted with screaming “Craaaaaaay” at appropriate intervals, and looking suitably like a woman when in her underwear; Feore, a poor man’s Robert Englund, tries his best not to appear absolutely, consistently ridiculous, but fails. Only Faison comes across as a living, breathing human being, with his mildly affecting range of expression, but the script’s myriad weaknesses sufficiently inhibit his ability.

As a vehicle of pure fluff entertainment, Highwaymen is instantly forgettable and far too pedestrian to deliver even as a guilty pleasure. As an embarrassingly misdirected hard-boiled suspense exercise, it may be, in the words of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure’s Large Marge, “the worst accident you ever seen.”

—Nathan Baran


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