Freeway (1996)

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Our love of cinematic trends here at the ISCFC is not (of course) for the initial, brilliant movies that started them, but for the trash that came after, as every bottom-feeder and indie company would try to wring a few £££ out of us. We’ve reviewed plenty of movies that were “inspired” by “Alien”, “Porky’s” or “Die Hard”, emerging in their wake, but today is the turn of Quentin Tarantino, whose shadow falls wide over 90s cinema.

 

“Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” caused more missing of the point than a nervous person at a “lay on a bed of nails” competition. Rather than the intricately crafted plots, ingenious pop culture dialogue (it’s tough to remember a time when that was remotely original) and violence-drenched non-heroic action, the producers we’re interested in saw “violence, scumbags, and swearing”. How many terrible 90s crime movies have you seen? “Very Bad Things”, “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead”, “8 Heads In A Dufflebag”, “Two Days In The Valley”, “Coldblooded”…these are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head, but it’s a deep list. And “Freeway”…is definitely on that list!

 

The plot is perhaps the 90s-est, Tarantino-rip-off-est of the lot. It’s “Little Red Riding Hood”, but with the Wolf as a paedophile serial killer, Red as a violent foul-mouthed teenage criminal, and the woodsman as “Chopper”, her drug-dealing gang member boyfriend. Red’s mother is also a drug-addict prostitute and her stepdad appears to do nothing but smoke crack and lay around in filth watching TV. I couldn’t shake the feeling that people this tick-all-the-boxes sleazy wouldn’t be able to exist, but you never know I suppose. Anyway, her parents are arrested for the usual catalogue of crimes, and Red decides to handcuff her social worker to a bed, steal her car and make a run for her Grandma’s house up in northern California.

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“The I-5 Killer” is operating on the stretch of highway she’s on, and wouldn’t you know it, her car breaks down, and she gets a ride from Mr Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), who’s definitely not an insane murderer, oh no. They have a conversation which seems to go on forever, with her shrill foul mouth, and his vaguely creepy platitudes – it must have seemed like a lot of fun to film, all that dialogue, but it comes across horribly on screen. Anyway, after him admitting he’d like to do “sex stuff to (her) dead body” she shoots him six times (including once in the head) and leaves him in a clearing miles from anywhere. He survives, of course, hideously disfigured, and the chasing and murdering and robbing and prison stints all goes on til we get a denouement of sorts at Grandma’s house. There’s lots of those sort of performances which are just the wrong side of over-the-top, like Brooke Shields as Mrs Wolverton, Dan Hedaya as a cop, and Brittany Murphy as Red’s cellmate.

 

There’s another scene, the police interview, where you can tell everyone expected this to be in some “90s crime drama” highlight reel for years to come. The dialogue overall is like an empty impression of Tarantino at his worst, and by the end you’ll want to mute the TV whenever Reese Witherspoon is on screen. It’s a really annoying central performance, which might have been okay if you were young and in the 90s, but if you’re any age in 2016, you’ll get really tired of it really quickly.

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The guilty party is writer / director Matthew Bright, who took a brief detour through Full Moon early in his career (1988’s “Shrunken Heads” is one of his) before an odd, if thankfully short, career. He also wrote and directed this movie’s straight-to-video sequel, and a few other crime-y movies, before wrapping up with “Tiptoes” in 2003. Never heard of “Tiptoes”? It’s the one where Gary Oldman plays a midget (by walking on his knees) and Matthew McConnaughey his brother, who grew up average-sized. Widely regarded as one of the most spectacular misfires of all time, it finished off Bright’s career, but if this was the best he could manage, it’s perhaps not that great a loss.

 

Witherspoon is awful and Sutherland is as good as could be expected, going wildly over the top and obviously having a great time. But…I feel this misses the mark by not understanding why this genre (and the director they’re aping) was so popular. There’s no-one to cheer on or even to operate as an anti-hero, it’s just scumbags against slightly bigger scumbags. “Hey, what if we did a fairy tale where everyone was absolute human garbage?” You need some real skill to pull that sort of story off, and no-one involved in making it had that skill.

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It’s interesting  to see what a strong critical reaction it got at the time, with people like Roger Ebert being very positive about it. While I’m sure many smart people hold different opinions to me for entirely legitimate reasons, I think at least some of the critical lauding this got was a case of Emperor’s new clothes, with no-one wanting to say “this hyper-cool, stylised, violent, profanity-laden new movie is a bit rubbish, isn’t it?” It’s so different to the source text that the occasional nod to the fairy tale (like the final scene) feels weird, like I was wondering why they bothered. It’s a little too humourless, unless you find a shrieking Deep South accent saying horrible things intrinsically funny.

 

Rating: thumbs down

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