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Volume 91, Issue 38

Wednesday, November 5, 1997

Nip it in the bud


Switching back to an old cliche

By Michael Brightling
Gazette Writer

A baby-sitter and a young boy are alone in a house one night. Suddenly a stranger arrives at the door claiming to be a friend of the boy's parents. He wants in the house. Strange noises are coming from upstairs. Suddenly, something jumps out from the darkness – a bad movie!!!

The opening scenes of the new film Switchback are full of tired clichés and not surprisingly, so is the rest of the movie. What follows is mostly standard thrills breaking no new ground. This film has "been there – done that" written all over it.

After the opening Scream-like teaser, Switchback straddles between two central story lines. The first plot begins in Amarillo, Texas where two bodies are found sliced up in a hotel bathroom. Sheriff Buck Olmstead (R. Lee Ermey) is perplexed. If he doesn't quickly solve the case, he could lose his post in the upcoming election. Lucky for him, it isn't long before FBI agent Frank LaCrosse (Dennis Quaid) is in town announcing the murders as the work of a serial killer. Apparently LaCrosse has been following this guy for a good year and a half and recent events have made the chase – gasp! – personal. Plot B follows a mysterious, young hitchhiker Lane Dixon (Jared Leto) who is making his way from Texas to Utah. He soon gets picked up by a jovial ex-railroad worker named Bob Goodall (Danny Glover) who saves him from a gang of rednecks at a country bar. Looks like they'll be going cross country together.

Movie thrillers should thrill, but shouldn't they also surprise? Switchback has a snazzy, wide-screen look and off-beat characters. What it lacks is storytelling smarts. First-time director Jeb Stuart (the scribe behind such high-testosterone fare as Die Hard and The Fugitive) wrote this screenplay when he was a film major at Stanford. It certainly feels like a student work. It might have seemed like a good idea to mix the serial killer/FBI flick with the road picture. However, this film never really explores the possibilities. Instead it just tries to jam the two halves together and create something entertaining – and it doesn't work.

Stuart keeps a distinct separation between the two plots for most of the screen time, although it is obvious how they connect. You see, the killer is adept at using a knife. Both of the travelers are seen using knives. The question is, which one is the psychopath? Unfortunately, Stuart tips his hand halfway through the film and we can only sit and wait for the stories to merge. At the point in the film when things are supposed to be kicking into high gear, Switchback runs out of steam.

For the most part, the actors try their darnedest to be entertaining. Ermey, for one, has a lot of fun as the beleaguered sheriff. He hasn't been this energized since he bullied a platoon of grunts in Full Metal Jacket. Glover has his moments too – rarely a minute goes by without seeing his trademark grin. Perhaps he's looking forward to his Lethal Weapon 4 salary.

The disappointment on the screen is Quaid. Generally a likable actor, in this film he's got a perpetual clenched look on his face which seems to indicate bowel troubles. It's difficult for a film to be successful if the central character is a mumbling bore.

Another problem with this film is the depiction of the killer. He's too ordinary – a cardinal sin in big screen thrillers. This guy enjoys stabbing people, that's his catch. Since he isn't very intimidating, there is little fear when he approaches potential victims. Hannibal Lector he ain't.

It is possible to enjoy Switchback from moment to moment because the characters (minus Quaid) are appealing and the Colorado locations fill the screen beautifully. It just seems unfortunate that every plot guess the audience makes turns out to be exactly correct. Instead of forcing the audience to sit on the edge of their seats in anticipation, this film leaves us squirming.

If recent box office results indicate anything, Switchback should be a modest hit. There is a market for these films. Perhaps when a first rate thriller comes along, this genre will really make a killing.

To Contact The Entertainment Department: gazent@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright © The Gazette 1997