Wednesday, June 27, 2007

VANISHING POINT (1971) Movie Review


Kowalski. He's a man on the edge of society, who's love affair with speed has landed him a job transporting cars from one city to another. His latest job is to deliver a white super-charged Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. Although he has two days to deliver, he makes a double or nothing bet with his friend that he can do it in fifteen hours.

With a handful up uppers, Kowalski takes to the highways, and quickly becomes the target of the police. As he zips from Colorado to Nevada and into California, he ditches one state police armada for the next. With him in spirit, is the blind DJ Super Soul, who has picked up the story and taken to Kowalski's cause. Super Soul sees him as the "last free American spirit", and divulges information to Kowalski about the police on the air waves. Along his journey, Kowalski meets others like him on the fringes of America, trying to live out their lives and days as they see fit, and rallying to what very well may be Kowalski's last run against the wind.

Much like EASY RIDER, VANISHING POINT remains in the minds of those that were around to see it upon its initial release as a document of a bygone time, of a world filled with order and chaos, where sometimes just trying to disappear is the only logical choice of action and the only side to choose was your own. Within Kowalski, played with a quiet intensity by Barry Newman, the viewer sees that the only side to choose that does not bring disappointment or heartbreak is your own, and that solitary is the only place where you can truly be free. During Kowalski's drive, flashbacks flesh out his character, that shows him both on the side of law enforcement and the fading hippie counter-culture, and the disappointment he finds in both.

However, in the today's age, VANISHING POINT remains as the best damn car chase film out there. Sure, there are films which have one or two intense chase scenes, BULLITT and THE FRENCH CONNECTION come to mind, and even the under-appreciated Charlie Sheen headliner THE CHASE and 2007's DEATH PROOF (which is more than just an homage to this film) that attempt to rival the throne, but for sheer fuel-injected excitement from beginning to end, VANISHING POINT arguably remains at the top.

As to why no other film in over thirty-five years has taken the crown, it comes down to the brilliance of director Richard C. Sarafian who goes to great lengths to show the speed of the vehicles, and the risk the drivers are taking. And in what could very well be seen as a "fuck you" to all previous chase/racing movies, Sarafian's opening chase sequence to set the pace of his movie would have easily been seen as the "final chase" of any other movie.

Beyond the multiple car chase sequences that make up this film, is the characters that inhabit the movie and what they each symbolize. If Kowalski's almost dialogue-less character, who lives by an "action speaks louder than words" philosophy, than Super Soul is the yin to his yang, whose non-stop and energetic vocal broadcasting is what defines him. Super Soul is a blind DJ, who immediately recognizes the importance of what Kowalski is, even if Kowalski himself does not. Super Soul acts as both a spiritual guide for Kowalski's lost soul and a narrator for the viewer, as he gives us clues to what makes Kowalski who he is, and also provides the soundtrack to the movie. The other important character that drifts into Kowalski's world is motorcyclist Angel, who comes it at the end of the movie and would have easily been accepted into the arms of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. His assistance in helping Kowalski can be seen as a passing of the torch from one hero of anti-establishment to the next. Angel has made his peace with the road, and now it is Kowalski's time to make his.

Part of the charm and staying power of VANISHING POINT is its ability to transcend its own time. Although it remains as an important piece of early 70's cinema and a document of the time, its general points about freedom of the individual are timeless, and each generation that follows can find undertones within the film they can interpret for their own rebellion. But VANISHING POINT can also just be one hell of an adrenaline rush, and said undertones are subtle enough that they do not weight down the ride.

You can read as much as you want into Kowalski's Challenger outrunning a police helicopter on an open stretch of desert highway, or you can just sit back in amazement at the real-time speed it took the stunt driver to pull off that feat. And that is the simplistic brilliance found within Malcolm Hart's story and Guillermo Cain's screenplay, and what keeps VANISHING POINT in the pole position of chase cinema.


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