With the recent announcement of True Lies and The Abyss finally scheduled for a remastered Blu-Ray home video release, I cannot help but think of other movies that deserve similar treatment, such as Breakdown, On Deadly Ground, The Beast of War, and Nevada Smith. Near the top of the list, is the road thriller The Hitcher, which turned 30 years old this February. Directed by Robert Harmon from a script by Eric Red, the film centers around young Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) who is transporting a car from Chicago to San Diego and decides to pick up a hitchhiking stranger named John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) in the middle of the West Texas desert, a decision the naïve young man soon regrets after the stranger reveals himself as a deranged serial killer and flat-out terrorizes him. After Halsey kicks him out of the moving car, Ryder decides to make the young man’s life a living hell by taunting his latest prey psychologically in a game of cat-and-mouse, taking innocent bystanders such as the pretty Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and attracting the concern of police Captain Esteridge (Jeffrey DeMunn).
The entire film hinges on Ryder’s sadism towards Halsey, with him relishing in delight whenever Halsey stumbles upon one of his traps. It is here that Rutger Hauer succeeds brilliantly where most actors imagined in that role fail. He portrays Ryder as a sinister, brooding bat out of hell, a monstrous demon that takes pleasure in killing people and has a shit-eating grin whenever he sees fear in Halsey’s eyes. He taunts the young man into stopping his acts of terror as a personal challenge towards good to stop evil, even if he has to take down the entire New Mexico police force with him to do so. Hauer is such a cool bastard in this one, probably a career-best for him in my opinion, and that’s already considering his performances in Blade Runner and Wanted: Dead or Alive. C. Thomas Howell himself has admitted that, during filming, he was actually afraid of Hauer on and off the set due to the actor’s general intensity.
Howell, fresh off supporting turns in E.T. and Red Dawn, does a good job of portraying a wet-behind-the-ears kid who is given a hell of a man-up lesson throughout the film to stop this maniac. A scene near the end involving the two main characters in the front of a truck perfectly shows how polar opposite characters and acting styles can complement each other and contribute to a great, albeit horrifying scene, immortalized with the phrase “You useless waste.”
As far as the violence and action sequences go, they are loud, quite bloody and very nicely filmed, with chase sequences and real stunts that resemble a surreal and overblown suburban road nightmare without going full Mad Max. Director Harmon, making his debut feature here, does a very good job at keeping the suspense in Red’s script intact while never losing the intensity of the action sequences throughout. Special credit goes to composer Mark Isham (The Beast of War, Point Break, The Mechanic) for adding moodiness to the film, editor Frank J. Urioste (Die Hard, RoboCop) for keeping the pace tight, and director of photography John Seale (Mad Max: Fury Road) for making sure those desert scenes are nice, wide and not-too-dusty, almost western-like at times.
The film merely broke even during its theatrical run and was criticized for its nihilistic take on good vs. evil (Roger Ebert infamously gave this film a zero out of four stars), but it has spawned a notable cult following throughout the years, becoming a favourite of director Christopher Nolan, whom I now suspect of ripping off Ryder’s “dog-without-a-leash” motivation and putting it into his Joker interpretation in The Dark Knight. A 2003 direct-to-video sequel and a remake in 2007 all but failed to capture the grounded essence of this original. Harmon’s own career never really took off following this film, with the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Nowhere to Run being his only other notable film outside of HBO made-for-TV films, though he did return to the road thriller genre in 2004 with the solid though not-so-spectacular, and often overlooked Highwaymen starring Jim Caviezel and Rhona Mitra. It’s a shame, he would’ve excelled in the genre.
Watching it again, I was surprised at how really well this film has held up over the past decades or so, as it still packs a lean-and-mean gut-punch that left me speechless, especially its finale which blew me away for its frank and unbridled depiction of righteous, stone-cold masculinity, raising the film’s status to that of classic. If there ever was a film which needed the remastered Blu-Ray treatment as soon as possible, it’s this one.