With "Freeway," Matthew Bright the writer has written a live-wire role for Reese Witherspoon, a terrific young actress last seen in "Fear." But Bright the first-time director has been far too self-indulgent with his own script.
"Freeway" means to be yet another gritty, lowdown dark comedy--a no-holds-barred contemporary take on "Little Red Riding Hood." Unfortunately, it's too drawn-out, too talky and, at the most crucial moment, needlessly implausible, to sustain its humor and large dose of violence.
"Freeway" hits the ground running with Amanda Plummer as a feisty, wasted hooker and her equally vivid sleazeball husband (Michael T. Weiss) winding up under arrest and Plummer's teenage daughter Vanessa (Witherspoon) taking off to Stockton to stay with her grandmother. Car trouble swiftly strands Vanessa on the I-5, with low-key, soft-spoken Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland)--note that character's last name--coming to her rescue with the offer of a ride.
Bright starts losing momentum with Vanessa and Bob threatening to talk their heads off before Wolverton effectively evolves into the psycho killer we always knew he was. Illiterate but self-respecting and spunky, Vanessa manages to grab the gun he pulls on her and pump him full of so much lead that it defies all credibility when, after being left to die in the middle of nowhere, he manages to stagger to a hospital.
As Bright, who wrote the nifty script for "Guncrazy," works out the "Riding Hood" plot through various twists and turns, he makes the point rather heavily that an outspoken teen with a low-class background and a shoplifting record to boot has no credibility when coming up against a grievously injured, well-off pillar of the middle class like Wolverton.
Special-effects makeup artist John Buechler has done a first-rate job of depicting Wolverton's dire injuries and their gradual healing, and Sutherland brings the same kind of zest to Wolverton as Witherspoon, Plummer and Weiss bring to theirs.
Wolfgang Bodison and Dan Hedaya are solid as a persistent team of cops, and so is Brooke Shields as Wolverton's righteously indignant wife. Danny Elfman's intense score contributes crucial energy, John Thomas' camera work is first-rate, but the ambitious "Freeway" ends up merely trashy.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong, lurid violence and sexual dialogue, some sexual situations, drug content and language. Times guidelines: The film is loaded with violence and contains graphic descriptions of sex acts.
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Kiefer Sutherland: Bob Wolverton
Reese Witherspoon: Vanessa Lutz
Brooke Shields: Mimi Wolverton
Wolfgang Bodison: Det. Breer
Dan Hedaya: Det. Wallace
A Roxie release of a Republic Pictures, Kushner-Locke and Samuel Hadida presentation in association with August Entertainment and Davis Films of an Illusion Entertainment Group and Muse/Wyman production. Writer-director Matthew Bright. Producers Brad Wyman, Chris Hanley/Muse productions. Executive producers Oliver Stone, Dan Halsted and Richard Rutowski. Cinematographer John Thomas. Editor Maysie Hoy. Costumes Merrie Lawson. Music Danny Elfman. Production designer Pam Warner. Set decorator Caitlin Blue. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581; University Theater, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (714) 854-8811.