The Road Killers
While on a road trip, Jack (Christopher Lambert) and his family are horrified when a young boy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is nearly run down by a carload of troublemakers. The group's ringleader, Cliff (Craig Sheffer), challenges the boy's father to a deadly game of chicken with deadly consequences. Intent on eliminating witnesses, Cliff orders his cronies to kill Jack while he kidnaps the family, but the gang's plans begin to crumble as they fight among themselves...revealing volatile tempers and shocking secrets.
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In the opening scene, we meet 16-year-old Ashley (Alexondra Lee), a sullen, disrespectful teenager. When her family's car overheats on a desolate highway, Ashley stretches her legs--with nothing between the bottom of her bare ass and the cowboy boots on her feet but a few threads dangling from her cutoff shorts. Her style and demeanor indicate that she is learning to own her sexual power, making her a perfect clone of Connie from Oates's story. And like Connie, Ashley attracts her own psychopathic admirer when, at a roadside diner, she escapes to the bathroom and discovers Cliff (Craig Sheffer) peeing at the urinal. After a brief flirtation while Ashley applies lipstick, Cliff says, "If I did what I feel like doing, you'd slap my face and run out of here screaming," reminiscent--though wordier and less effective--of the threat Connie gets from Arnold Friend: "Gonna get you, baby."
Unlike Connie who deals with Arnold Friend alone, Ashley has her family along as they are traveling by car caravan to San Diego. So now the Sarafians fold in elements from "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," which chronicles a family road trip gone horribly wrong. In the O'Connor story, the grandmother inadvertently causes her family to cross paths with the Misfit, a dangerous escaped convict who murders them all. The grandmother's bad choices--like hiding the cat in the car (which causes the accident when the animal escapes its basket) and directing her son Bailey down a desolate dirt road when she's not sure it's the right one--are plausible, for O'Connor has established that the grandmother insists on getting things her own way. The characters in "The Road Killers" also make a number of poor decisions which put the family in danger, but their behavior is never believable.
For example, while the adults deal with the overheating car, Ashley's young cousin Rich (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds a flower growing in a crack on the highway. He bends down to study it, asking with Buddhist concern if he should pick it or leave it for a future vehicle to flatten. A few minutes before, Rich was playing a video game, competing to beat his father's winning score. Boys who play video games grind flowers underfoot; they don't suffer absurd angst over a daisy's potential demise. During Rich's communion with the flower, Cliff and his carful of crazies come tearing down the highway. Maybe the crickets were really loud. Maybe the wind masked the sound of an abused 8-cylinder engine. For some reason, no one hears the Cadillac until it nearly runs down Rich while he is pondering the flower's fate (the flower escapes unharmed).
The near-miss understandably angers the adults on the trip, so when they recognize the Cadillac at the diner, they confront Cliff about his irresponsible driving. When Cliff points out that the boy is, despite the scare, fine, father Glen (Christopher McDonald) throws a glass of water in Cliff's face. Do men throw water in each other's faces? Isn't that something wives do when they learn their husbands are cheating? This girly challenge inspires a game of chicken between Cliff and Glen. Granted, the middle-aged father is driving a red, mid-life-crisis Mustang, but would a character of his age and responsibility believably agree to pilot his car head on into another? When Glen does--but then loses his nerve, crashes the Mustang, and dies in the burning wreck--we have little sympathy.
Instead of returning to the diner where they could contact the police, the stunned family continues down the road where Cliff waits in ambush. Glen's brother Jack (Christopher Lambert) leaves the protection of his vehicle, threatens Cliff with jail, and then stupidly turns his back on three young men with a baseball bat. When Cliff swings that bat with home-run intensity at Jack's head, dropping him on the asphalt, we gasp at the inanity of the situation, not in horror. The movie may have gotten interesting if, with the men out of the picture, the Sarafians had step-mother Helen (Michelle Forbes) tap into female rage to save the day, but instead, they let he-man Jack (Tarzan and the Highlander in other Lambert incarnations) make an improbable recovery from the skull cracking--only to get arrested. Now logically, a man would approach a motel desk and say, "My family has been kidnapped. May I use your phone to call the police?" The blood-stained shirt would lend credibility to his emergency. Instead, Jack assaults the clerk and breaks a window, ending up in jail.
At this point, we are ready to abandon the good guys and root for Cliff, for a well-drawn charismatic bad boy is a delight to watch because he shows us an alternative method for engaging the world. Think surfer/bank robber Bodhi from "Point Break" or Robin-Hood Omar from "The Wire." Unfortunately, Cliff just kills (when he's not twirling his glam-rock hair and sucking on the ends like a tweener). He murders strangers, friends, his brother, and police, all with equal lack of motivation or a single reasonable explanation for what has set him off.
The actors manage to depict rage, fear, worry, craziness--a whole spectrum of emotion--with competence, but the ridiculous action makes this movie painful to watch until the end. Better to dig out the college lit anthology and read the short stories by Oates and O'Connor, who handle all these same elements with real expertise.