Highway to Hell

Even the sketchiest sense of character development takes a back seat in the bland, bloody remake of The Hitcher.

It stands to reason that if Hollywood has the hubris to try to remake a classic like The Manchurian Candidate, it will try to remake just about anything. Common sense, taste and judgment obviously have little to do with the decision.

Here's some crazy talk (alternatively known outside Tinseltown as "stating the obvious"): Most movies just don't need to be remade. The Manchurian Candidate didn't need to be reshot because it was, well, perfect the first time. No matter the more recent all-star cast, Jonathan Demme's well-received direction or what critics have deemed generally acceptable story tweaks, the bottom line is that a second Manchurian Candidate has absolutely no reason to exist. None. Except for the fact, of course, that somebody wanted to make it, and some other body was willing to give them the money to do so.

This rush-to-remake is the only possible scenario known to movie-going man in which The Manchurian Candidate and the 1986-slumber-party-staple The Hitcher can fit into the same category. The Robert Harmon-directed Friday-night-flick about a road trip gone horribly wrong didn't need to be remade, either. Not because The Hitcher was anywhere near a perfect Candidate, but because ' as its boring new incarnation proves ' it really was as quality as it was ever going to be. There's just no good-enough reason for this second go-round.

In the first Hitcher, unsuspecting young Jim (C. Thomas Howell) picks up hitchhiker John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) as he drives cross-country to deliver a car. His act of kindness is repaid tenfold ' in terror. Psycho Ryder (Hauer at his divinely devilish best) tries to kill Jim, tries to frame Jim and finally tries to turn Jim into his evil equal. The film works, on a surprisingly creepy level, thanks to Hauer's wily seductiveness and Howell's wide-eyed susceptibility; the two achieve just the sort of sick, personal victim-villain connection that every good horror flick ought to contain. Don't be fooled ' Eric Red's script isn't any kind of a deep psychological study. How could it be with severed fingers served up in French fries and a poor girl drawn and quartered in an excruciating case of death by semi (as in truck)? No, The Hitcher was just good, silly fun, with a relentless Lecter-esque bad guy and a road-rage, recurring-nightmare recipe of claustrophobic fear in open spaces. And yet somehow, it looks like the Citizen Kane of scary movies compared to its dumb doppelganger.

The remade Hitcher gives us two leads, Jim (Zachary Knighton) and his girlfriend Grace (Sophia Bush) who are on their way to New Mexico spring break fun with friends. At night, in a driving rainstorm, Jim narrowly misses flattening a dark form standing in the middle of the highway. Jim wants to stop and help the guy, whose car has apparently broken down, but Grace gets the creeps and makes him leave the scene. Of course, like some appointment in a southwest Samarra, the three are fated to meet, if not on the open highway then under the fluorescent lights of a roadside mini-mart. A seemingly normal John Ryder (Sean Bean) talks his way into a lift to a local motel. Of course, he's not normal; he's nuts, and he spends the next couple of days alternately trying to kill Jim and Grace and trying to frame them for all the mayhem he leaves in his wake.

Debuting director Dave Meyers pours on the blood (and for a silly slasher flick that's not meant as a criticism) and manages to provide a few good scares, but the movie has a tone problem. Two exaggerated roadkill jokes in the film's opening minutes set up a sardonic, Scream-ish vibe that falls by the wayside right away, in favor of a more run-of-the-mill scary stalker scenario. But any sense of a growing relationship between the hunter and his prey ' the original story's one claim to smarts ' is ditched.

This Hitcher remake has one lead too many for that kind of savvy, and two actors too few. The boyfriend-girlfriend construct just doesn't serve the story well, and Knighton and Bush (One Tree Hill) are well out of their acting league. Bean, the best thing about this bad movie, isn't given much to do except snarl and seem menacing; you can't help but wish he'd been given Hauer's same set-up, just to see what he would have done with the role's intimidating intimacy.

Still, like any project that producer Michael Bay attaches his name to (The Rock, The Island, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), The Hitcher is shot with that trademark startling, saturated palette: crystalline blues, glowing oranges, radioactive greens. The western mountains and sky are a great backdrop, used well by cinematographer James Hawkinson. If only bad-guy Bean road-raging in a black Trans Am didn't have the same special effects visuals (or level of character development) as a Toonces sketch, maybe The Hitcher might feel less all over the map.