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Overall Rating

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look66.67%
Just Average: 13.33%
Pretty Crappy: 6.67%
Sucks: 13.33%

1 review, 9 user ratings

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by Jack Sommersby

"Dennis Quaid vs. Serial Killer"
4 stars

Like serial killers? Mountain scenery? Railroads? BLTs? Then this is the film for you, I declare.

Switchback is so faultily scripted in places that it really has no right being as entertaining as it is, but such is indeed the case. In making his directorial debut after a fifteen-year career as a screenwriter of such box-office hits as Die Hard and The Fugitive, Jeb Stuart has polished off a screenplay he'd written years before at a college workshop and directed it with remarkable assuredness and style for a first-timer. It's not overly surprising when someone like, say, cinematographer Jan De Bont manages to make a spectacular debut behind the camera with something like Speed, because he worked up close and personal with directors John McTiernan (Die Hard) and Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall) on an important technical aspect of those films; yes, he was responsible merely for lighting the shots, not deciding on the shots themselves, but with any truly successful director/cinematographer collaboration, the two eventually manage to communicate with very little words, with the cinematographer instinctively knowing what the director wants in terms of the film's "look" without it being explained to death. The screenwriter, however, usually isn't consulted on any of the technical aspects of the film; he provides the blueprint, and it's the director's job to create the physical interpretation of it. So it's rather astonishing to witness such bravura technical skill on the part of someone like Stuart, especially on a project as action-filled and geographically-complicated and -diverse as Switchback, with the location shooting extending to some rugged mountain locations in the Colorado Rockies, and the screenplay containing crisscrossing story lines of the hero and villain in different states throughout most of the running time. Add to this a fine visual sense and crackerjack sense of pacing, and you have yourself a filmmaking craftsman who gives the audience the comfortable impression that he knows exactly what he's doing.

The film opens with the kidnapping of a pre-teen child from a house in a prestige neighborhood; a babysitter is slain, and the ski-masked intruder makes off with the tot. We then forward to Amarillo, Texas, where Sheriff Buck Olmstead (played by R. Lee Ermey) and his team are investigating a gruesome murder at a motel: the bodies of a male guest and female maid have been found in a bloody bathtub. With little forensic evidence, Olmstead is desperate to crack the case, because election day for his position is only forty-eight hours away, and he's running against the city's ambitious chief of police. Enter FBI agent Frank LeCrosse (Dennis Quaid). Dressed in black with a mood to match, LeCrosse convinces Holmstead that this double murder is the work of the same serial killer he's been relentlessly tracking for the last eighteen months, the same one who fatally severs his victims' femoral arteries with a large knife and taunts LeCrosse by sending him newspaper clippings of the killings. There's something else: it was LeCrosse's son who was kidnapped, which was done by the killer to take the heat off -- he liked it when it was just he and LeCrosse, not he, LeCrosse and the two-hundred-agent task force assigned to the case. But it seems LeCrosse isn't exactly playing completely straight with Olmstead: he neglects to mention that the FBI's official position is that a man who was discovered dead a month after the kidnapping was the killer. LeCrosse believes the man was used as a decoy by the killer, and it's worked, all right, because LeCrosse isn't even supposed to be in Amarillo -- he's in dereliction of duty for having left his assignment in Philadelphia, and his superior, upon finding out where he is, orders Olmstead to arrest and detain him until he arrives.

Oh, but this is just the half of it. For in between these happenstances, we're introduced to two other characters: Lane Dixon (Jared Leto) and Bob Goodall (Danny Glover). Dixon is a young twentysomething medical-school dropout hitchhiking to Utah, and Goodall is an ex-railroad worker who gives him a ride in his Cadillac that boasts an interior papered to the gills with nude girlie pictures. Seemingly inconsequential, right? Guess again. A check of the motel restaurant's security camera shows Dixon was there the day before the murders, and a strand of hair matching Dixon's own is found in the second bed in the very same room where the murders took place. And here's the real doodle: in a roadside diner where the two have stopped off, a man at the counter starts to choke on his food, and Dixon comes to the rescue by performing an emergency tracheotomy with a knife he has on his person and with the same methodological precision that the killer employs with his victims. Then there's Goodall. In an amusing bar-fight scene, Goodall comes to Dixon's rescue as he's getting beat up by some drunken mine workers; in engineering a standoff, he takes one of the miners hostage by placing a long knife down the man's pants, right next to the man's frank and beans. And there's something else, too: the authorities in Amarillo have managed to identify the make, model, and year of the car the killer drove, which is, yes, a perfect match of the one Goodall is currently driving. Both of these men are intelligent, loners, and carrying around considerable emotional baggage, with Dixon wallowing in feelings of regret and viewing himself as a gutless failure, and Goodall using his boisterously sunny disposition as window dressing to cover a dark side that tends to make itself known on occasion.

Like the outstanding 1992 serial-killer thriller Jennifer 8, Switchback is unusually restrained and deliberately paced, which turns out to be both a blessing and a curse: we're afforded the time to get to know the characters and settle into the story, but we're also given too much opportunity to zero in on the numerous logic loopholes and inconsistencies. Concentrating on the latter, we're asked to swallow more than a bit too much nonsensicalness. It's not enough for LeCrosse to barge into an apartment during a hostage standoff because, unlike the city cops, he knows the hostage-taker isn't the motel killer, as if that alone would guarantee the armed man isn't going to shoot him (especially after one cop has already been fatally capped), but, late at night, when he spots a train he believes to be significant and gives chase to it on a sparsely-traveled, snow-covered road and winds up in an accident, you wonder what his plan was if he reached the speeding train -- stop the car in its incoming path? The killer is supposed to be toying with his pursuer, leaving him clues -- in essence, turning the tables so the hunter becomes the hunted -- but the only reason LeCrosse comes across a couple of essential ones is by blind luck. And if the killer engineered the kidnapping to take the heat off to "level the playing field" to just he and LeCrosse, why has he partaken in a self-destructive path geared toward his own death? Does a certain character purposely give himself away with an incriminating matchbook, or is it as hoary a plot device as it appears? And since that same character couldn't know that another character abandoned his gun in the scene before, why does he put himself in a situation where it could be drawn on him?

The film is naggingly negligent in places -- typical of a lot of first-time screenplays, it pulls contrivances out of thin air to progress the plot, like in having Holmstead's snide election opponent do a complete one-eighty on the sympathy scale for no discernible reason -- and also just outlandishly dunderheaded -- why on earth is the whodunit aspect still pursued when the killer's identity has been unveiled a good thirty minutes before the closing credits? And is it just me, or does the severing of a femoral artery seem a bit opaque a modus operandi for a serial killer? If there's any significance to it, it flies right over the audiences' heads. While I appreciate Stuart for not overstating matters, he's shortchanged certain areas that need some filling in. The hero's motivation is clear, but the killer's seems to be existing in a fugue state; we've no idea what makes this man tick, and his selection of victims has no real consistency. Up till a certain point, all of his victims have been male, so when he sets his sight on a female, you're finally left to assume that either Stuart just didn't give a damn about the psychological possibilities of the material or he's purposely keeping things vague in a dire attempt to elicit the impression of "complexity" (if something's not being openly stated, it must be fascinatingly mysterious, right?). And the character of Dixon or Goodall (I can't reveal which) could have been better developed, too. We get a generalized view of him, which is satisfying enough till about the midway mark, but Stuart seems to have simply forgotten about him after that; that, or he decided to keep him as vague as the killer so the audience, I guess, assumes the lack of depth means he's hiding something sinister.

While about fifty percent of the screenplay's internals are iffy, its story structure is admittedly sound, and even somewhat clever. But, overall, the writing is vastly inferior to the directing, which, again, is surprisingly stellar stuff considering it's Stuart's first time calling the shots from behind the camera. Like a born director, he knows what to look at and how to interestingly look at it: the widescreen compositions manage to convey as much texture and suggest as much menace as the characters and their actions. Through his acute visual sense, he's also managed to get something evocative out of cinematographer Oliver Wood, whose work has never been more than passable (Face/Off, The Bourne Identity); the look of the film is clinically cold and eerily Gothic, like a cross between a Night Gallery episode and a moody revenge-themed Western. (In fact, the film is devoid of bright primary colors for so much of the time that when you see blood -- or even the red of the railroad worker's parka LeCrosse dons in the latter sections -- the sight of it's oddly phantasmal.) And his staging of the action sequences is first-rate, especially the knockout of a finale, which finds LeCrosse and the killer fighting it out on a train's four-ton wing as it crashes through snowbanks while the train itself hurtles toward a tunnel -- ludicrous but pulse-poundingly exciting, it owes a good deal also to the razor-sharp editing of Oscar-winner Conrad Buff and sensational score by Basil Poledouris. The only sequence that feels forced is the one where Dixon tries to help Goodall out of their crashed car that's teetering on the edge of a mountain cliff; right when you think Stuart's had the maturity not to go for the cheap payoff, he not only does, but does so after two anti-climaxes within twenty seconds of each other.

Without the four outstanding performances at its center, though, Switchback would be nothing more than a passable diversion. Jared Leto fulfills the promise he showed the very same year in the title role of the touching biopic Prefontaine; his mixture of charm and instinctiveness helps glide over the superficiality of his character. Danny Glover offers up a grandly entertaining performance that's perhaps a bit too broad at times but boasts some admirable degrees of quite-telling shading in crucial scenes, like when Woodall quietly menaces a counter clerk in an otherwise-deserted store. Still, Glover would have been better cast here over a decade ago; the performance lacks the steely reserve and tightly-coiled tension of his mesmerizing work in Witness and To Sleep With Anger. R. Lee Ermey (unforgettable as the martinet of a drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket) does a priceless, career-best turn as the sympathetic sheriff whose quick wit and innate decency make him irresistibly appealing; he turns what could have been a cliche into a wonderfully realized character who's so vivid and commanding that he just about walks away with the film. (Dig how he stresses the second "o" in tomato.) And holding everything together is Dennis Quaid's solidity as the hero. Understatedly portraying an understated character can be a challenge, yet Quaid succeeds in keeping LeCrosse interesting and forceful without him coming off as a prig; and when he swings into action -- whether it's quickly searching a car's interior for clues or discreetly administering a gunshot to a criminal's leg -- he's exciting to watch, and even in the quiet moments he's interesting, because his body is always in character, expressively conveying inexpressiveness (a difficult feat for any actor to pull off). You can't wholeheartedly recommend Switchback due to its shortcomings, but the prowess of the cast, the director, and the technical crew manage to make it worthwhile nevertheless.

Sadly, Jeb Stuart has not directed a single project since "Switchback" opened in 1997 to less-than-stellar box-office business -- in the U.S. this $38 million production ended up grossing a paltry $6,482,195. A definite shame.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=3606&reviewer=327
originally posted: 07/02/04 11:13:08
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User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell IT SUCKS 1 stars
1/28/16 ronn It needs an enema. 1 stars
6/28/06 ALDO enjoyable viewing. The movie's title should of been different 4 stars
1/22/06 tatum Not terrible, Ermey is aces 4 stars
4/16/03 Nicole Not too bad a movie, but kind of predictable 3 stars
1/03/03 Jack Sommersby An underrated, hard-edged thriller. Top-drawer acting. 4 stars
8/10/02 Jim Diverting but fairly predictable 3 stars
3/26/00 jool Danny Glover plays his character with humor and bad-a*s-ness. 4 stars
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  31-Oct-1997 (R)



Directed by
  Jeb Stuart

Written by
  Jeb Stuart

  Dennis Quaid
  Danny Glover
  R. Lee Ermey
  Ted Levine
  Jared Leto
  Louis Schaefer

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