Friday October 31, 1997

     Before he exploded onto the scene of commercial screenwriting with his back-to-back scripts for "Die Hard" and "The Fugitive," young Jeb Stuart wrote a screenplay in a college workshop program that showed enough promise to earn him a Hollywood agent. Now, that early script has been dusted off and made into a major motion picture, with Stuart himself directing, and it is a spectacular mess.
     "SwitchBack" looks fabulous, with Oliver Wood's cinematography providing breathtaking panoramas of the snow-clad Rockies, and the film's action sequences and literal cliffhangers are first-rate in their design, stunt work and special effects. But beneath its high production gloss, and its casting of action pros Danny Glover and Dennis Quaid, is a story of jaw-dropping banality.
     "SwitchBack" is a serial killer thriller, about an obsessed FBI agent following the bloody trail of a psychopath into the wintry wilderness of the Southwest. Quaid's Frank LaCrosse is on a solo manhunt. The killer, Bob Goodall (Glover), has tricked the FBI into pinning his 18 murders on another man, but Frank, who's been after him for 18 months, knows better. Goodall kidnapped Frank's 7-year-old son, just to get him taken off the case, and then sent him a riddle telling him how to get the boy back.
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     It seems that Goodall wants to die, but he wants to do it as part of a game of hide-and-seek, and before Frank can get to the part where he might be able to sing "Olly-olly-oxen-free!," he has to overcome local police resistance, a stupid subplot about a sheriff's election, clumsy attempts by his own agency to stop him, and the whims of mother nature.
     You can feel the student's hand all over this story. Stuart creates conflict and motivation out of thin air. The killer's MO is to sever the femoral arteries of his random victims, but no explanation for that peculiar fetish is ever given. Nor do we learn why Goodall wants to die, or why he's suddenly killing all of his old friends.
     In fact, the only plausible person in the film is R. Lee Ermey's Buck Olmstead, a wise old Texas sheriff who becomes Frank's ally.
     Frank is a one-note character played in a trance-like, monotone funk by Quaid. In contrast, Glover hams it up with relish as the villain. In the early going, when he and his hitchhiker (Jared Leto), a medical student dropout used first as a red herring, then a foil, and finally a messenger, are driving into the Rockies, Glover's gregarious manner is good fun.
     But when his dark side is revealed, it's almost laughably incongruous. He goes from charmer to maniac in a nanosecond, and right back again. Strobe Man. This is definitely a pathology worth exploring, but hey, Stuart is a screenwriter not a psychologist. If you want human dimension, if you want professionalism, rent Hitchcock.


SwitchBack, 1997. R, for strong violence and several views of nude pinups. A Pacific Western production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Jeb Stuart. Producer Gale Anne Hurd. Executive producers Keith Samples, Mel Efros, Stuart. Screenplay by Stuart. Cinematographer Oliver Wood. Editor Conrad Buff. Production designer Jeff Howard. Music Basil Poledouris. Costumes Betsy Heimann. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. Danny Glover as Bob Goodall. Dennis Quaid as Frank LaCrosse. Jared Leto as Lane Dixon. R. Lee Ermey as Sheriff Buck Olmstead.