“Tighten your seat belt.
You never had a trip like this before.”
–Vanishing Point movie poster
For the most part, there are two kinds of movies. There are movie movies, and there are movie snob movies. It’s the rarest of films that’s honestly both. Vanishing Point (1971) is, I think, one of them. It isn’t that everybody likes it — people tend to either fall instantly and forever in love with it or think it’s the most stupid fucking thing they’ve ever seen. The range of people who love this movie, though, is amazing. Cult movie geeks, muscle car enthusiasts, fringe artist-types and blue collar workers all adore it.
Like many subjects of fanatical adoration, this movie is almost impossibly simple — the plot is so “high concept” it sounds like a joke when you first hear it. “A guy is driving through the desert, and the cops try to stop him, and he won’t stop, and eventually he has every cop in the world after him.” And that’s it. I mean, obviously there’s more, but that’s basically it.
It was inevitable that somebody was going to remake it. I suppose it was also somewhat predictable that it would be the Fox television network, Vanishing Point being a Fox property. Most predictable of all was that the remake would be a complete joke.
What wasn’t inevitable or obvious was that Vanishing Point, that bridge between eggheads and gearheads, would be turned in on itself and made ugly and divisive.
The Old School
In the original, a former race-car driver and cop named Kowalski (Barry Newman) drives into Denver late one night, delivering a car. He gets hold of another vehicle, a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T (this is one stud machine, for those of us on the egghead side of life), scores some speed, and is off immediately, heading back to the Bay Area. Some cops try to pull him over, he doesn’t want to be pulled over, and a four-state chase ensues. He becomes a media star along his drug-fueled way, and is aided by an assortment of freaks. Freakiest of all freaks is Super Soul (Cleavon Little), a blind DJ at station KOW, with whom Kowalski develops a seemingly supernatural bond. Super Soul becomes Kowalski’s alter ego/guardian angel/greek chorus, helping, praising, and ultimately suffering along with him when angry citizens rise up and destroy the station. Eventually, of course, Kowalski can’t run anymore, and rather than give up, he gets up speed and runs the Challenger (it’s not really a ’70 Challenger used in the crash, any good movie/car geek can tell you–it’s a ’69 Camaro) into a police roadblock and dies.
The remake ran on Fox’s “Tuesday Night Movie” on January 7th, and stars Viggo Mortensen as Kowalski (the only way I can forgive Mortensen for this is by imagining him going “Vanishing Point? Fuck yeah!” before he’d actually seen the script). If the only thing you liked about the first movie was the car, you’ll love this one — same car, and it’s pretty much the star of the movie. The new script replaces Super Soul with a populist “shock jock” named “The Voice” (90210’s Jason Priestly). Any wee hopes I had for this thing were killed in the first minute, when I realized what the setup was going to be.
Vanishing Point is about my favorite 70’s antihero movie, and it still stands as a nearly perfect example of that genre. There is no setup and little backstory. Kowalski drives into town and drives back out immediately against a friend’s good advice. He doesn’t have any particular reason not to pull over for the cops — he just doesn’t want to. He wants to be left alone — if what he’s doing is technically illegal, who gives a shit? He’s out in the middle of nowhere, and the only person he’s going to potentially hurt driving 100+ mph is himself. Kowalski is a man who has had much more than enough (that’s obvious from frame one — the occasional flashes of his past life just confirm what we already knew) and wants to be left alone, whether or not his cause is just or sane or even a cause at all.
The New School
The remake turns this Camus-on-crank fable into a combination of The Incredible Journey with muscle cars instead of cute animals and populist nonsense like Convoy. Hey, we can all sympathize with this Kowalski–he’s got an ailin’ wife and a baby comin’ to get home to! (Mrs. Kowalski being another 90210 alumnus.) And he’s not an ex-cop who saw other cops rape runaways, anymore — he’s a heroic Gulf War veteran who was disciplined for disobeying orders, just for doing what was right. Added to this is an idiotic and repulsive attempt to tie into anger over the events at Ruby Ridge and Waco.
This last bit shoots itself in the foot for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Kowalski’s predicament isn’t anything like the situations at Ruby Ridge or Waco. No matter what G. Gordon Liddy would have you believe, in neither of those cases were people just “trying to live their lives” when the government suddenly burst in to ruin the party. That government abuses and mismanagement resulted in unnecessary harm is undeniable in both cases — but these are both situations involving groups of people who were not so much interested in fleeing tyranny (to paraphrase Gore Vidal) as in creating their own, and in both cases they got tripped up by an enthusiasm for arming themselves for war, entrenched themselves, and received the consequences of taking on the ZOG or the Antichrist or whatever.
Blind Color Casting
This revision also fails because the overreaction of law enforcement, surreal and ominous in the original, is just plain stupid in the remake. In the 1971 version, the cross-country chase snowballs silently and surely. In the remake we have to see a bunch of expository scenes in which the evil FBI honcho (here’s the film’s black lead — blacks being omnipresent in the upper echelons of federal law enforcement, after all) explains that they can’t have another Waco, so the wisest thing to do is assume, based on Kowalski’s Idaho residence, that he’s a militia member carrying explosives and/or drugs and hunt him accordingly. And hunt him they do, using car after car, a helicopter, and eventually NSA satellite tracking equipment.
At least the transformation of the black DJ character into a lily-white one made some sense as soon as I saw this stuff coming — “Remember Ruby Ridge” would have sounded pretty silly coming out of Cleavon Little.
The result of these transparent attempts to turn Kowalski, Mark II into a “man of the people” and a hero is that he succeeds as neither. The original Kowalski, who acts for no particularly good reason, has become both over time. I think I know why that is, and what the makers of the remake got completely wrong.
Our motivations, as humans, are not as simple as pop psychologists, preachers and makers of lame TV movies would like them to be. Most of what happens to most of us, and much of what we do is, if we’re honest about it, fairly random. We are not rewarded for our good deeds, nor are we unduly punished for them, usually. Most evil, as C.S. Lewis points out in his preface to The Screwtape Letters, is not thrilling and conspiratorial — it’s banal and nearly unconscious. Popular notions like conspiracy theories capture imaginations for the same reason romance novels do — they provide escape from mundane existence. Kowalski’s story, in the original Vanishing Point, does not provide release — for all its fantasy, it’s true. You suspect that you’ll end up dying the way Kowalski does, in some fashion — that one day the choices you’ve made will suddenly join circumstances to back you into a corner and you won’t get out. That many of us would like to go out nobly the way he does in the remake is a given — but really, how many of us will? And how many of us will just walk into the wrong convenience store, or drive too fast around the same corner we always do, or find ourselves in a tub with a razor or looking at a mass in an X-ray?
In the quest to make Kowalski accessible, the TV movie has been stripped of every fantastic touch. Gone is the psychic connection between Kowalski and the DJ — “The Voice,” in this movie, only exists to help turn Kowalski into Randy Weaver. Gone with the character’s blackness is the wonderfully bizarre placement of a funky-ass spade DJ in an isolated little cowtown. Gone with that (and because it’s not in keeping with the Kowalski-as-white-folk-hero theme) is the attack on the station by the white residents of the town.
To re-inject the wonder, a pointless “vision quest” and equally pointless backstory about a trapped mountain lion (guess what — the lion turns out to be Kowalski’s spirit guide — yaaaawn) have been added, and in the most bizarre move in the whole mess, the movie has been turned into a quest for Christian faith. The setting of the story (“Friday” to “Sunday” in the original) has been moved to the Passion Week, and a subplot involves Mrs. Kowalski’s Catholic faith and Kowalski’s struggle to reconcile himself with her beliefs. When she dies, Mrs. Kowalski gets to come back as a really annoying 90210 angel.
Worse than all these horrors, though, is that the ending has been changed. Kowalski turns out to be D.B. Cooper. Somehow, impossibly, he jumped out of the car and got away. On a highway. At 185 mph. In front of crowds of cheering onlookers and waiting cops. This is mentioned only as a possibility by “The Voice,” as no body was ever found, but we see a series of shots that show Kowalski’s best buddy finding his St. Christopher medal a ways off the road, and a future Kowalski and his little girl hiding out somewhere in purple mountains’ majesty.
What was a really simple, strange, and even subtle (for what is, in essence, the dumbest car chase movie ever) exploration of the heart of man, of individuality, and of life in general has been co-opted and twisted into a stupid, mean and (I would argue) ultimately racist piece of crap that doesn’t even have the attraction of being fun to watch. A universal cry of despair at how little we take from life and what it exacts in return, that has bound wildly disparate groups of people for nearly three decades, has been turned into an altar call, into yet another rant by the “oppressed” whites of America, into a sermon on the bad government that punishes people for doing what’s right — in other words, into a tract for the status quo. I’ve been pissed off by remakes before, but this one didn’t just anger me, it sickened me.
It’s still a cool car, though.
Vanishing Point (1971) is available on VHS video tape and on laserdisc from CBS/FOX, and can be found for rent at most video stores. The remake will probably be out for rent in a week or so, but who cares?